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Female Leaders in the Strongman Era

By Nicola Field | Photo by Michael Bowers


Laura Tingle has a celebrated career as a journalist and author. Formerly the Political Editor of The Australian Financial Review, Tingle is currently the Chief Political Correspondent of the ABC’s 7.30 program. Leadership Matters caught up with Tingle to seek her views on the changing nature of leadership, and how different female leaders have adapted their style to achieve success in the male-dominated world of politics.

In her recent essay Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman (Black Inc.), Tingle pulls no punches about the state of leadership in modern politics. She kick-starts her commentary noting that the qualities and requirements of leadership are eternal, and observes that history is peppered with great leaders who have shaped our views of what makes a true leader. In particular Tingle observes, “Political leadership should be about building a consensus for change, giving people a map to follow, and bringing together different parties to achieve an outcome.”

It’s a definition of leadership that certainly isn’t exclusive to political circles. The same notion of a leader as someone who can inspire, motivate and galvanise a team to achieve collective goals applies in the business world also.

But that may be where the common thread ends.

In Canberra, at least, recent years have seen a revolving door of leaders, and this has forced incumbents to become more focused on controlling the inner ranks of their own party rather than guiding the electorate.



“There is something of a ‘crash or crash through’ approach in politics at present,” observes Tingle. “Right now we see situations – not just here in Australia, but elsewhere in the world also, where consensus building is no longer valued, and this can pervade the culture in business as well as politics.”

Tingle points to former Prime Minister Paul Keating who is often cited as an example of the ‘crash or crash through’ approach. Yet she notes that he also argued, “You have to bring the mob with you”. Tingle points out that at least Keating regarded his role as setting the right direction and then persuading enough people that he was right, to enable him to follow that path.

It’s a very different matter with some of today’s leaders. And, for many people, US President Donald Trump will come to mind as the embodiment of what Tingle refers to as “our conflicting expectations and frustrations when it comes to leaders”. Tingle’s essay sums up Trump’s presidency this way: “We are as alarmed by the apparent powerlessness of American institutions to contain or direct him as we are by the erratic ignorance and nastiness of his actions.”

The prospect that Donald Trump could be a bellwether for future leadership will be worrisome for many, and Tingle observes that he could herald the return of the strongman to politics. But how will this affect women aspiring to leadership roles – be it in politics or the commercial world?

Tingle is quick to highlight that leadership is not the same as authority and power. “Leadership can come from the foot of the table, it doesn’t have to come from the head of the table,” she says. “But whether it is in politics or business, women are increasingly holding senior, leadership positions – and that is threatening for a lot of people.”



This threat can make the challenges of leadership far greater for women than for their male counterparts. Tingle notes, “There can be a real sense of machismo in the political arena, and women in politics can face an extra layer of hostility.”

From power struggles to coups, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard faced both – and a whole lot more. Tingle was well-placed to observe how Gillard handled the challenges, and how she responded by cultivating her image to maintain her political clout. An inherent degree of sexism made this transformation essential. Tingle explains, “Since leaving office, Gillard has met other powerful women in politics around the world who tell stories of being in high-level meetings surrounded by men in suits, and being mistaken for one of the catering staff.”

Indeed, Gillard herself has commented that she would often take part in gatherings of world leaders, yet the Australian media would focus on the clothes she was wearing rather than any contribution she made. Tingle agrees with the former PM’s assessment: “Gender wasn’t everything with Julia Gillard. But it was certainly something.”



In offering an explanation as to why women in political leadership roles can face gender issues, Tingle refers to the UK’s best-known classicist Mary Beard, whose book Women & Power: A manifesto, which traces the roots of misogyny all the way back to classical Greece and Rome. Beard argues that silencing the voices of women was, in effect, a natural part of manhood, and this has established a precedent for women aspiring to leadership positions.

“Mary Beard has really drawn attention to perceptions of women – and how perceptions of power are hardwired within us,” says Tingle. “History has shaped our views about what people in authority should look like”.

Those perceptions saw Julia Gillard take steps to alter her image as a leader. Tingle describes the evolution of Gillard’s public persona, saying, “Over time, Julia Gillard transformed herself. She felt she could no longer make jokes, but rather had to be sombre and serious.”

Tingle notes that Beard argues women have tended to adopt many outward signals of ‘manliness’ in attempts to establish their leadership credentials – from dropping their voices when they speak, to wearing the ubiquitous pants suit favoured by so many modern female leaders.

She adds, “We see something similar in Angela Merkel [who has served as Chancellor of Germany since 2005], who always wears the classic pants suit.”

Not even a political heavyweight like Angela Merkel is immune from superficial criticism. In 2013 for instance, Le Journal International allowed fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld open slather against Merkel’s dress sense in relation to her “special proportions”.

Indeed, when it comes to political leadership, women tread an especially fine line with their wardrobe. The 2016 US election campaign saw Hillary Clinton blasted for wearing a $US12,000 Armani jacket. UK Prime Minister Theresa May sparked outrage for wearing a pair of £995 leather trousers.

Tingle notes, “These examples highlight how we are all struck by implications of what power looks like, and how hard it can be for women to break through this sort of nonsense.”



Is it essential for women in leadership to alter who they are, what they wear, and even change their voice to fit in with popular perceptions?

Tingle refers again to Women & Power, citing questions Mary Beard raises about how women can be heard – and whether it involves exploiting the status quo. It’s no secret for example that former UK PM Margaret Thatcher followed the advice of minders to lower the pitch of her voice (and thereby sound more masculine) in order to win the 1979 election.

“We often do things to increase perceptions of our authority,” says Tingle, “and that can include changing aspects of ourselves to create a perception of male authority. It’s just what we do.” She points out for instance, that Julia Gillard “eventually developed a persona of speaking slowly to convey a sense of being in control.”

However, some women do successfully break the mould. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has created a very different prototype of female leadership. Not only has she seemingly missed the memo about the need to look and sound more masculine, the announcement of her pregnancy saw her public support swell.

“Jacinda Ardern is fascinating – and an extreme opposite to someone like Angela Merkel,” observes Tingle. “She is not perturbed by motherhood, just as she wasn’t perturbed by issues over whether Russian spies were in New Zealand [which was a question Ardern faced in March 2018 following the Novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK].”

Tingle continues, “Jacinda Ardern just stays cool, and focuses on the important things – and this has given her an authority that she didn’t start out with.”



In her essay on political leadership, Tingle points out that, “We bemoan a lack of leadership. Some yearn for the good old days when we had it. Yet when we get it, we sometimes don’t recognise it, and even if we do, we seldom reward it.”

She explains this view saying, “We don’t have a very sophisticated assessment of leadership. We have started to adopt a one-dimensional view of leadership, and the continuing change of leadership [in Canberra] has undermined what it means to be a leader.”

According to Tingle, our structure of government has reached the point where it is not possible for any one person to bring about significant policy change, no matter how persuasive an advocate they might be. “It means the skill and obligation of leaders lies in changing relationships within the ranks of their colleagues and the electorate so that they are not operating on their own.”

Tingle believes that effective leadership comes back to identifying self-interest versus collective interest, and cites the Labor Party as a good example of this. “Bill Shorten is not always popular among his parliamentary colleagues,” she explains. “But the collective interest of the party is what drives his team to get on with the job. This is tremendously stabilising because the Labor Party as an organisation knows it won’t get into government if it looks like a rabble.”

As Tingle points out, “This demonstrates that it is possible for people to learn to put team interest ahead of self-interest. The crucial thing is for people to understand the collective self-interest in order to make rational decisions.”

It’s not a bad maxim for managers and leaders, male or female, to follow, and it provides hope that the strongman approach won’t win out – in the business arena at least.

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