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Human Resources : Missing in action

Every Issue

Cite as: (2002) 76(10) LIJ, p.84

Effective leadership is a rare commodity in Australian organisations.

“Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy.”

Much has been written on leaders and the role of leadership over the centuries. In Australia, the issue and role of leadership has rarely been out of the news since the Karpin Report into the state of Australian management was tabled in 1990. The report found that Australian managers struggled in areas of leadership, including teamwork, empowerment and people skills.

“But I’m a lawyer (accountant, engineer etc.)” is a common response. No matter what your training or technical background, if you have direct responsibility for other employees then you have leadership responsibilities.


Regardless of their field of expertise and industry, when executives are asked to describe the characteristics of effective leadership for their organisation (i.e. to support high performance) the results are surprisingly similar.

They invariably include statements such as visionary, supportive, high personal integrity, pragmatic, flexible, passionate belief in what they do, consultative, respected, effective communicator and ability to listen with an open mind.


Human Synergistics, a trans-Tasman consulting firm, has collected data on more than 35,000 managers/leaders (including many members of the legal profession) across Australia and New Zealand during the past five years.

This data has been collected via surveys where the manager describes him/herself and arranges for five other people in the organisation to describe him/her as well.

The results show that the primary style operating in Australian managers is one of thinking and behaviour that is oriented toward a fear of failure, denial of responsibility for one’s own behaviour and withdrawal as a way of coping with situations and people perceived as threatening.

The secondary style of thinking described by managers’ own self-descriptions is oriented towards seeking security within rules and established procedures.

The secondary styles of behaviour indicate that when managers cannot avoid, they then deal with situations in an aggressive way – finding fault, seeking to control and competing against others.

The results show that a common reaction is the manager’s fear of failure, aggressive reinforcement of blind adherence to rules in the hope of creating some sense of security and frustration as others question the rules and attempt to stamp their own thinking on the job.

Clearly this type of interaction is hardly conducive to high performance, not to mention being stressful for all involved.

These behavioural styles are most commonly associated with high stress levels.

Research on the thinking and behaviour of members of the legal profession has been shown to be consistent with managers in general.

Because the average Australian business leader thinks and behaves defensively, they create a negative work culture. Leadership style and organisational culture reinforce each other, thereby creating cultures in many organisations which focus on covering your back, avoiding blame, being tough and aggressive and ensuring that work takes precedence over everything.


There is a huge reservoir of untapped potential in our organisations and the poor state of leadership displayed is a major inhibitor to improved performance.

As businesses face increased demands with fewer resources, the organisations that survive and grow will be those that most effectively harness this potential.

The answer lies not in driving staff to work harder but in supporting and respecting them as human beings, allowing them to be themselves, gain a sense of enjoyment and belonging from their workplace and involve them in the way businesses are run.

Because, as organisations are beginning to see, if you want your employees to treat your customers/clients well, then you first need to treat your employees well.


At the time of writing, JENNIE SHEPPARD was a senior consultant with Human Synergistics in its Victorian office and is now the executive director of The Mercy Foundation.


Shaun McCarthy, “Leading high performance cultures”, Human Synergistics, 2002, Shaun McCarthy, “Building high performance cultures”, Human Synergistics, 2001, Human Synergistics website,


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