The conundrum of unpopularity in leadership 

In a noisy world full of opinions about everything, often armed with both too much and yet not enough information, are we now too scared to lead?

I have seen a fantastic glimpse of the future. It was visible on the many faces of the next generation of local government leaders who showcased their ideals at the 2018 LG Professionals Australia national congress in Canberra recently.

In a highly engaging session, a group of aspiring young members from Australia and New Zealand taught their more experienced colleagues how leadership should look as they worked together to test their teamwork, problem solving and analytical skills.

The courage, commitment and leadership shown by these young talents opened the congress on an extremely hopeful note, particularly considering it was the same day that the federal parliament was imploding just two miles away.

The young local government professionals were vying for a spot in the association’s Australasian Management Challenge, which is designed to foster professional development in the sector’s emerging leaders.

It was not their snazzy presentation techniques that impressed, but rather watching how a team of leaders, who had only met the night before, worked together seamlessly to support each individual to succeed, with a greater goal than their own success.

LG Professionals Australia national CEO Clare Sullivan remarked that these young professionals put into perspective what it means to be a genuine leader in local government.

“Leadership is an evolving area. We’re moving from traditional one leader models to broader concepts and with the changing demographic and dynamic in the workforce, I believe a key component of modern leadership is fostering tomorrow’s leaders,” Ms Sullivan said.

“We need to be providing the very best in mentorship that will give young professionals the courage to fulfil their own leadership potential – it calls upon all of us to consider how we can be better leadership role models,” Ms Sullivan said.

This year’s congress presentation on the Australasian Management Challenge was focused on the strengths and weaknesses of living in the new reality of an artificial intelligence world and what this means for councils. The two teams of young professionals handled the complexity of the topic with passion, energy and clarity.

It was a lesson in how to leverage the powerful information we have in our communities and how we can support residents in more innovative and meaningful ways.

Their demonstrated management behaviour signalled that all had equal contribution to their presentation development – void of political process, factions or agenda. Watching them, it was easy to believe they can be the ones to change permanently the language and form of modern leadership and thereby find ways to irreproachably shape both their own future and that of their communities.

Weathering the storms of opinion and politics

It’s naive to think that local government is protected from political processes. The rise of obsessive popularity contests above all rationality continually puts stress on achieving the ideal of better quality policy and outcomes for communities. It also puts pressure on management in keeping the professional staff ship steady under the weight of what can feel like endless storms of circling politics.

In a noisy world full of opinions about everything, and often armed with both too much and yet not enough information, we can see leaders scared to do anything for fear of criticism. And it’s not just the elected officials who are finding the rules have changed.

The overwhelming trend to populism – who can please or quieten the most people – is clouding the opportunity and space for more genuine, hard-graft leadership in a time of avid couch critics.

Is it better to sail through life and run up against fewer issues or live a life that is fulfilled – knowing that you genuinely improved things for the future, even if it means you are not liked?

Real leadership is about courage, not fear of losing popularity. And as we saw from our brave young professional colleagues in Canberra recently, it’s also about truly allowing those around you to thrive.

Annalisa Haskell is CEO of LG Professionals, NSW.

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