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Where have all the strong political leaders gone?

It’s much easier to speak your mind when you’re no longer holding high office, of course, but one might say it was how politics was done in the past. Back then there was no Twitter or selfies to be seen, but rather a genuine contest of ideas about local and global challenges.

One issue both leaders agreed on was the toxic nature of political debate right across the developed world. This includes the lack of bipartisanship on crucial reforms and a political process that now seems to pander to the loudest rather than the majority. As Hawke has previously observed, “The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.”

A blanket opposition to reform and pursuit of short-term political gain is tearing at the political fabric of democracies around the globe. It’s no surprise that many in society have lost trust in the political system and those who occupy important positions. The US government’s shutdown in October 2013 – where routine services had to be curtailed because the Republican-led House of Representatives and majority Democrat Senate could not agree on bills for appropriating funds – was a particular low point. The Republicans were trying to scupper President Obama’s Medicare program, but their actions were for personal rather than national interest.

People noticed. In a Washington Post /ABC News poll conducted several months after the shutdown, 81 per cent of Americans surveyed disapproved of the shutdown; 86 per cent felt it had damaged the nation’s image; and 53 per cent blamed the Republicans.

It’s no surprise that many in society have lost trust in the political system and those who occupy important positions.

Reform is never easy. Both Howard and Hawke fondly recalled the tough negotiations and conversations that took place when they were prime ministers. The key reforms that were legislated during their times in office – including floating the Australian dollar, removing trade tariffs, introducing a GST and generally making the economy more open – have been major contributors to Australia’s 25 years of continuous growth. But it took strong leadership and resolve to convince the community these were the right decisions.

Howard and Hawke also talked about some of the world leaders they had met: Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Xiaoping, Pope John Paul II, Clinton, Yeltsin to name a few. While many of these leaders were polarising, and people may disagree on what was good and what was bad about their reigns, what isn’t disputed is their lasting impact. They changed their nations, and the world.

At the end of the debate, Hawke and Howard asked the audience, “Where are these types of leaders today?”

The question of strong leadership came up at a recent roundtable series hosted by AIM. Building the Skills of Leaders and Managers was a policy series held across Australia which involved people at all stages in their careers. Most agreed that being a strong leader required some technical skills, but probably more important were the soft skills. An ability to communicate clearly, have empathy and take people with you were seen as being more important than having a vision or strategy.

Strong leadership means standing up for what you believe in and convincing others to follow – and it’s a skill not solely reserved for politicians. Business and community leaders must also have the fortitude and poise to lead from the front. Without followers there is no leader, and without strong leadership there is no change.

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