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In defence of true leadership

Date: December 31 2012


Bullying and poor management stem from inadequate training - and the army can show the way, writes Elizabeth Boulton

In June, The Canberra Times reported that the CSIRO had been handed a notice by Comcare to fix its alleged bullying culture by year's end. With the deadline now due, the CSIRO reports the problem is in hand; staff have been fast-tracked through an e-learning module, and risk-management procedures have been reviewed. I'm not convinced.

After a three-year sojourn in the science world, I would argue that the real issue here is underinvestment in leadership and management capacity. Even at the global level, statements in a key report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - a peak global scientific body - indicate this is a problem. The IPCC declares that ''knowledge about how to create and enable leadership remains elusive''.

Anyone with a humanities background would immediately know this conclusion unfortunately demonstrates ignorance of disciplines such as history, politics and business management, and even social sciences such as psychology. People have been studying leadership for centuries. Leadership is important, because the leader often establishes the psychological climate in a workplace.

Through small actions, the leader indicates what behaviour is accepted and what values are important, and these attitudes tend to infiltrate the organisation.

A leader who subtly encourages power games rather than merit-based and ethical behaviour gives a green light to all sorts of perverse undermining behaviour.

In contrast, while even the greatest leader cannot eliminate the negatives of human frailties, they can create an environment where human strengths and noble attributes flourish. Where wonderful values such as trust, fairness and decency are upheld.

Being around a good leader who emanates these characteristics is refreshing and inspiring. I can speak to this because I have worked with people like this. Let me talk about the army, where I came from. It is a relevant comparison, because in the science world, as in the army, the key asset is the people.

To ensure its people (and also its resources and its activities) are properly managed, the army invests heavily in developing leadership and plain old management capability at all levels of the organisation.

This starts with recruitment. Although many officer cadets have already displayed good leadership aptitude as school captains, sports or community leaders, and some are ''natural leaders'', still no one would dream of putting them in front of soldiers until they undergo an 18-month training course.

From private soldier to warrant officer, and from lieutenant to general, there is a steady feed of leadership and management training and education courses, varying from two to 12 months' duration, tailored to meet the needs of different career stages.

Early training covers not only leadership theory and team psychology but also many pragmatic subjects, including understanding leave, pay entitlements, equal employment opportunity (EEO) and occupational health and safety (OH&S) legislation, how to do performance reviews, and how to give counselling.

The hard bit is applying all this knowledge properly, and so this capability is developed through many practical activities, with debriefs and a chance to learn and check progress.

In mainstream defence life, there is mandatory annual training in EEO, OH&S, fraud and other areas. This investment produces a reliable body of solid, values-based leaders who know how to look after personnel, build teams, organise people and resources and herd cats in chaotic environments.

It also yields a smaller crop of particularly exceptional leaders - the sort that make you feel compelled to thump your fist on your chest and say: ''I'll follow you anywhere.''

Flash to the science world and in contrast we typically (and appropriately) see people whose natural talent, aptitude and bulk of professional experience lies in subjects such as mathematics, physics or computer modelling. On reaching a higher level of technical mastery, they may move into management roles. To prepare, they may attend a three-day Stephen Covey leadership or Emotional Intelligence course. Some do a one-day Leader as Coach course.

It's a start and well-intentioned, but this investment is still absolutely inadequate and leaves managers in a vulnerable position. At the day-to-day level, in my three years in the science world there was no equity, privacy or fraud and OH&S-type training, and I can't recall much emphasis on values such as integrity or tolerance.

Bullying is ultimately about the unethical wielding of power. It can be used by those who have no legitimate power, do not know how to responsibly exercise authority or those who have a deep sense of inadequacy. Capable people do not need to bully - their performance stands for itself.

When power and authority systems are not robust and fair, perverse versions of power and influence dominate. Strong ethical leadership is the main guardian against this type of distortion. The same lesson has been learnt in the army - under severe psychological conditions such as warfare, without strong ethical leadership, atrocities such as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam are more likely to occur.

Today's climate scientists suffer immense stress from which there is no rest and recreation or deployment home. They watch the death signals of the planet day in and day out, and are confronted by vicious attacks from climate sceptics (such as death threats and threats towards their families).

I was shocked to find they are often bogged down with an immense amount of bureaucratic administrivia. One climate scientist told me he spent only about 25 per cent of his time doing science.

The other deeply concerning issue is that there are only a few handfuls of people who are up to job of doing high-level science. You could take the view that Australia's best scientists, those with an intellect up in the stratosphere, are like the Special Forces: strategic national assets. These people are walking around with a multi-million-dollar asset between their ears - but it's not a missile, it is their brains.

And what investment goes into managing these strategic national assets? Virtually none. Scientists, on their side, perhaps require some humility to admit that although they are the smartest kids on the block, they still ''may not know what they don't know'' and consequently display some openness to ideas about how to properly lead, rather than bully.

Elizabeth Boulton, a former army major in the Australian Defence Force, is a researcher at the Australian National University.

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