We are all leaders in our own way

This has been a remarkable year for leadership in Australia. We have changed prime ministers, premiers and even more AFL coaches.

It’s been fascinating to see different people perform the same job with incredibly contrasting leadership styles.

I’ve been asked to reflect on leadership more than ever before in speeches, media appearances and in conversations with residents and businesses. Australians are craving visionary, stable and compassionate leadership in these uncertain times.

I was not surprised to see the latest data from the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership this week about what citizens want from political leaders.

Australians want leaders to resolve short-term issues while maintaining a long-term vision.
Leaders will be punished for focusing solely on the daily news cycle. They need to explain how their decisions, plans and policies will also benefit people in two years and beyond. And they need to explain it clearly.

The majority of people surveyed said it was most important for Australian political leaders to clearly communicate their vision.

While these findings are insightful, and organisations like the McKinnon Prize play an important role in recognising and developing political leaders, we must also appreciate that quality leadership can come in many styles.

John Howard, Julia Gillard, Daniel Andrews and Craig McRae are all leaders who have starkly different leadership styles, proving there is no one way to lead. Be yourself because your style is the most compelling.

I constantly reflect on “Who am I leading for?” in my role as lord mayor, I represent a wide range of people, including traders, residents, tourists, office workers, students and many more. Balancing the interests of stakeholders is always a delicate juggling act.

Recently I led a debate at Town Hall about what the City of Melbourne should do on January 26, and whether we should advocate to the commonwealth government to change the date on which Australia Day is celebrated. It was a divisive debate and one that many people told me to avoid for political reasons but knowing how important the issue is to Aboriginal Melburnians meant that I knew it was the right thing to do.

As the spokesperson for the City of Melbourne, my role comes hand-in-hand with public criticism. I’ve learned to reflect on the feedback I receive, while looking at the facts. I have also learned to show resolve in the face of opposition. I believe often the right thing to do is not the easiest or most popular option.

There are other times when feedback highlights mistakes or areas for improvement. There is nothing more important to me than owning a failure, learning from it, and delivering an improved outcome for our community. Failure is generally a stepping stone to success and the most valuable lessons are those that are learned the hard way.

It’s my firm belief a leader must have a passion for listening to and empathising with people from all walks of life. The things I have learned from the streets of Melbourne during the pandemic will stay with me forever. People who lost their businesses, people in the depths of mental health crises, people who were unable to pay the rent when their jobs were impacted by COVID-19, and people were dealing with the stress of working on the front line — these all shaped how I now see leadership.

The role of lord mayor did not come with a guidebook. I am continuing to learn every day. I feel honoured to represent my municipality and wider Melbourne. I’ve more than once referred to myself as a “cheerleader” for Melbourne during the pandemic. As we continue pirouetting to a form of COVID normal, my current focus is guiding the city through an exciting period of economic bounce-back. I’m proud to say we are leading on climate change action, infrastructure projects, events and so much more.

I am also aware that many business owners are still struggling, which is why we will maintain a concerted effort to ensure Melbourne’s magnetism and to create confidence in the future for our traders. That’s another important element of leadership — persistence and endurance. Walking away is not an option when the going is tough.

There will always be challenges in this role and every other leadership role, but leading people is a privilege. We are all leaders in our own way and we must all strive to continuously improve. As this survey shows us, what people want from their leaders will change over time and good leaders will stay attuned to that.

Sally Capp is the current Lord Mayor of Melbourne. She was a recipient of the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership last in 2019. Nominations for the McKinnon Prize 2022 are now open and can be submitted via the website mckinnonprize.org.au.