“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more,” said the sixth US President John Quincy Adams, “you are a leader.”
It is not typical that we look to politics – especially now, nor as Australians – for ‘inspirational leaders’.
“Politicians aren’t fashionable in Australia,” declared Julia Gillard when stepping down as prime minister in 2013.
As Australians we tend to look to sports stars, philanthropists, great inventors, pioneers and others as providing the inspirational leadership we both understand and respect.
And I sense this is fair enough.
We don’t expect politics – the designing of laws, the arena of compromise, the art of persuasion, the contest of ideas – to provide our fix of inspiration.
‘Just get the job done’, we tend to say to our elected members at all levels of government.
Why is leadership important?
But the challenges now in front of Australians – reviving economic growth, a frosty trade and security relationship with China, the need for cheaper energy, and fixing the multitude of policy issues of federation – suggest an obvious need for decent politics but also sound political leadership.
In a democracy like ours it demands not just good people within close orbit of legislatures and the political arena – making prudent and wise decisions – but also a capacity to inspire citizens to think hard about the challenges we face, and to meet them with character and resolve.
I have spent the summer revisiting JFK’s Profiles in Courage, which Kennedy wrote in 1954.
He inspires us to think of courage – “the most admirable of human virtues” – and applies it to a historic selection of US Senators that stood on principle, often at the expense of their own careers.
But in closing Kennedy also notes that, “in a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘holds office’; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfil those responsibilities.”
This is an important point, not just in obvious terms – we ‘get the politicians we deserve’ – but how we all possess the responsibility to shape our political leaders. And then for our leaders, at least in theory, to ‘play back’ these expectations to us as responsible voters and citizens.
If we want our politics to be inspirational, I’d quietly suggest, then we must be more inspired ourselves.
Tone and motivation
To stay with the United States briefly, I have never been able to go past President George H. W. Bush’s comment, hidden away in his 1988 book Looking Forward, that “The Presidency is like no other office. It provides an incomparable opportunity for moral leadership. A president can set a tone, an atmosphere, a standard for the nation.”
In another more recent autobiography by Tim Scott, a black Republican Senator for South Carolina, I was happily surprised to learn that, when asked ‘why’ he was involved in politics, Scott responded that “I want to positively affect the lives of a billion people with a message of hope and opportunity before I die.”
The Australian context
Granted, setting the tone and messages of opportunity are fine, and can apply strongly our political leaders in the Australian context.
But is there anything else missing?
My only suggestion, in looking hard at Australian political leadership over the past few decades, is a restoring an added element of ‘trust’ to our politics, where leaders do what they say, and say what they do.
This sounds simplistic but there are two examples worth pointing out.
First are the seismic and wide-ranging promises made by the Rudd Government following the GFC – school halls, education revolutions, home insulation schemes, a new racial chapter with a national apology to the stolen generations, cash payments to individuals, and the National Broadband Network.
Australians put their faith in government and were poorly let down.
The second is from the era of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam – an inspirational figure to many but who, like Rudd, let so many people down in policy deliverables, even prior to his dismissal.
Whitlam promised less union friction, to reduce inflation, stoke employment and reduce the cost of home ownership.
All of these commitments, which required more persuasion than simply government directive, literally, went backward.
I am of course a proud, and here maybe thinly disguised, member of the Liberal Party.
But my concern in these examples is for fellow Australians, regardless of politics, let down by over-promise and chronic under delivery.
This wears down our civic trust, makes us unfairly despise our politicians and demotivates us to contemplate the challenge of politics.
Lessons of politics
In inspiring ourselves to desire more effective political leadership we must, too, reflect the values of trust, tone and opportunity in our everyday lives.
Expecting it from our politicians is one thing.
But it is important that we hold these things close in our individual temperaments, communities, families, workplaces and among friends.
While recent events may remind us of these ideals we all understand that, deep down, they’re perennial in a free and open society.
Our actions, however small, can always encourage our small circumference of followers to ‘dream more, learn more, do more, and become more’.
Image source: Web Desk/The News.