The leadership crisis: comms lessons from Malcolm Turnbull

As Scott Morrison settles into his new role, much can be learned about how not to manage a crisis from his predecessor, argues Peter Wilkinson.

In both crisis management and change management, flip-flopping on a strategy is a no-no.

The Turnbull’s failure to unite his party has been a central theme of his leadership from the start. History will not remember this period of Australian politics well.

We can learn a lot about leadership and reputation management from studying politicians, because the decision-making is visible. Proof-in-point is looking back at Turnbull and the NEG – a classic case of change management failure, which requires a clear direction for others to follow.

Without getting into the minutiae, the inevitable impact of the recent flip-flopping on the NEG left many of us lacking confidence in Turnbull and distrustful of the plan.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make adjustments as circumstances change. That’s not flip-flopping, instead fine-tuning a plan or policy with a changed strategy or tactic. With the NEG, the crisis in electricity prices and the arguments around climate change remain the same.

Malcolm Turnbull

One of my former bosses would say to me, “I’m right until I’m wrong”, which I dismissed at the time as trite. But years later I saw his point: “I am responsible for this, I’m setting a direction based on the best advice and my experience, which has a good chance of success, and I’m seeing it through despite all the critics in my ear who think they know better.”

#Libspill has been in the making since Turnbull replaced Abbott in the top job, and was exacerbated by Turnbull constantly compromising his own strategy and values to satisfy his critics.

The fail points on strategy

I’ve noticed, as a journalist for 30 years, and then in crisis management and disruption for 15+ years, that there are six consistent patterns for success or failure.

If one of these is weak, a strategy is vulnerable.

1. Unity at the top.

On really difficult decisions there is strength in the ability to collaborate and compromise. It takes time for a board, for instance, to learn to be high-functioning, making efficient, quality decisions and some never get there, bogged in often pedantic arguments.

Ultimately the higher purpose comes first, and if you can’t negotiate a workable outcome you must either force a challenge, or leave.

It’s fair to argue that Turnbull inherited a poisoned chalice. A divided party was a problem he’s had to solve from the beginning. It’s a flaw in the leadership that he hasn’t been able to sort the basic issue of the party divided.

2. A strong, values driven spokesperson.

Hawke and Keating were each driven by a ‘Big Idea’, and exceptionally forceful personalities, which many agree made them great PMs in their time.

Howard, the other of the three oft-mentioned great Australian leaders in the post-war era, had a values-driven style. The best description of leadership values I’ve seen recently was former FBI director James Comey’s triple pairing of values: confident enough to be humble; kind but tough; acting with integrity and decency. Comey may end up on the wrong side of history for other reasons, but they don’t detract from the strength of those values.

Those former three leaders were able to walk a line that for Mr. Turnbull is a struggle.

3. Clear messaging.

The NEG is enormously complicated but it seems to come down to a compromise between lower power prices and what’s best for the environment, plus, for the coalition, being technology-agnostic (coal, gas, wind, solar, etc.) about how that’s achieved.

A plan has little chance of success if the messages don’t resonate with key stakeholders.

4. Simplicity.

Don’t get distracted by side-issues. A classic debating technique is to create a side-issue that distracts people’s attention from the main issue.

5. Nimbleness.

The simplest way of demonstrating this is that the person who is consistently the first to capture the media cycle, each day, is most likely to win an argument.

6. Resourcing of capital, and people.

Based on the above, at least one and two are fails for the government and its leader, and possibly, regrettably for stable government, irreparable.

More broadly, they are critical measures of success/failure in any leadership team.

As many CEOs and board directors well attest, in the commercial world, the level of dysfunction on Canberra is untenable.

Peter Wilkinson is chair of WilkinsonButler. This post first appeared here.


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