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Spotlight on the first 100 days of leadership

When ambitious young leader David Bartlett , then aged 40, became Tasmanian premier in May 2008, he had a clear vision in mind for Australia’s island state.

More than that, he’d planned in clear time increments what would happen in his first three hours (specifically, a media conference where he’d announce his intention to build a “clever, kind and connected state”), the next three months (the 100-day program), and ultimately, three years.

But the best-laid plans often go awry and Bartlett’s first 100 days as premier offer a salutary lesson.

“It was about two-and-a-half months in on Monday, 8 August, when I got a call at 6.30am from the director of public prosecutions to say he was going to arrest the deputy police commissioner that day and charge him with disclosure of public secrets.

“At 10.30am, I got a call to say my minister for economic development had attempted to take her own life following a story that went public about her affair with a driver.

“At 3.30pm, the head of Treasury came to see me to say I had to make a $400 million investment to buy the half-constructed Tamar Valley gas power station because [in a precursor to the global financial crisis] investment bank Babcock & Brown’s share price had just tanked.”

The first 100 days is a special time because the wind is at your back, people have hired or appointed you with high expectations and they want you to have an impact.

He may have been eager and organised with a 100-day plan, but that didn’t stop many of Bartlett’s plans going askew. “In fact, I think those events informed the rest of my premiership,” he reflects.

Now happily back in the IT and innovation consulting world, Bartlett still believes that a leader’s initial 100 days are significant. The outstanding lesson in his story is to expect the unexpected. It’s a theme that resounds when leaders and leadership experts are asked to consider the concept of “the first 100 days” – and how to approach this critical time frame.

Rewind a moment: The habit of scrutinising a leader’s first 100 days has origins in political history. Les Cent Jours was the period between Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba in late March 1815 and the restoration of King Louis XIII in early July, during which time Napoleon raised an army and defeated many adversaries in the War of the Seventh Coalition.

US presidents Abraham Lincoln (who achieved preliminary emancipation of slavery) and Franklin D Roosevelt (who promised to restore democracy, confidence and peace during the Great Depression) both clocked up memorable reforms just shy of three months in office.

Since then, it’s become customary to keep an eagle eye on newly elected leaders and for the media to give them a report card on day 100. For the record, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull got a big thumbs-up for his first century of days.

The corporate world

Recently, the custom has moved to business, where leaders of large corporations in particular are scrutinised. But the question begs: Do the first 100 days really matter?

This is the time frame when an extraordinary leader who is committed to making a major difference and is very proactive can really shine, says Robert Hargrove, New York-based executive coach and former co-director of the Harvard Leadership Project. “Not only should they do something important, but they should do it with a sense of urgency,” he says.

But Hargrove isn’t so sure business really understands the 100-day impetus. “When I look at the typical CEO, vice-president or line manager, they do pretty conventional things, press the flesh, meet people, find their way to the office, and that’s a shame. The first 100 days is a special time because the wind is at your back, people have hired or appointed you with high expectations and they want you to have an impact. The original spirit of the first 100 days needs to be restored.”