Turnbull: Collaboration as a winning leadership strategy

Barely a week has passed since the latest Australian leadership spill, and it seems like the dust is settling faster than it has in the past. Perhaps these spills are becoming so commonplace that we barely raise an eyebrow anymore. Perhaps we all just want to get on with our lives.

It’s easy to dismiss the change in leadership as a change that had to happen, given Tony Abbott’s highly criticised performance in the public arena. But this is exactly why the leadership spill is so fascinating. Why was Abbott so unpopular? And what makes Malcolm Turnbull so much more appealing – to both sides of the political spectrum?

While many column inches have been devoted to the political manoeuvring that got him the top job, it seems that Turnbull’s recent victory could well be attributable to his leadership style. Turnbull displays a much more collaborative style of leadership than Abbott – leadership based on influence rather than authority. This approach seems to have won him the support of the people and ultimately his party.

So how is collaborative leadership different to traditional leadership? And how can you bring collaborative leadership into your workplace?

Collaborative leaders have finely tuned influencing skills

Some say that leaders don’t need influencing skills.

Leaders already have influence (a noun), so they don’t need to know how to influence (a verb). It’s as if influence is an inherent quality of the person or the role rather than something that leaders do.

We see this regularly in our Influence in the Workplace workshops. Most people want to learn how to influence their managers and peers. But when it comes to their direct reports, they tend to rely on their authority.

Authority – or positional power – is certainly one source of influence. It can be quick and easy to use, which is what makes it so appealing. But it is not collaborative. And, over time, the short-term efficiency gains are greatly outweighed by the long-term costs of relationship erosion.

Turnbull immediately distinguished himself as a collaborative leader when he said:

“We need to have in this country and we will have now, an economic vision, a leadership that explains the great challenges and opportunities that we face. [That] describes the way in which we can handle those challenges, seize those opportunities and does so in a manner that the Australian people understand so that we are seeking to persuade rather than seeking to lecture.” [emphasis added]

Collaborative leaders understand the need to engage their people and gain their buy-in for important ideas and initiatives. And they achieve this through a broad range of influencing techniques – not just authority.


Collaborative leadership requires vision

Collaborative leadership requires a clear vision

Abbott was widely criticised for his lack of vision, demonstrated in literal terms in this satirical clip by a group of Taiwanese animators.

While simple and brief, Turnbull’s vision for Australia brimmed with hope and optimism:

“The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative….

“There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.”

While hardly the most eloquent speech delivered by a politician, Turnbull’s impact was neatly summarised by this news.com.au headline:

“Malcolm Turnbull just said some stuff that just about everybody in Australia will relate to”

Listening to him, something stirred in me. I felt inspired.

Collaborative leaders speak from and to the heart – not just the mind. And they speak in terms that everyone can understand.

Collaborative leaders consult before making decisions

In his victory speech, Turnbull said:

“The culture of our leadership is going to be one that is thoroughly consultative, a traditional, thoroughly traditional, Cabinet government that ensures that we make decisions in a collaborative manner.” [our emphasis]

Consultation is a cornerstone of collaborative leadership.

Many leaders – and organisations – treat consultation as an afterthought. They consult after deciding, which gives the consultation a hollow feeling. This so-called consultation can do more harm than good, as stakeholders are left with the impression that it was artificial.

As Harvard University’s Roger Fisher and Scott Brown wrote in Getting Together: Building Relationships As You Negotiate: “ACBD: Always Consult Before Deciding.”

“To consult means to ask your advice… Consultation does not require that we agree or that I give up such authority as I may have to make a decision. But it does require that I inform you of a matter on which I may decide, that I request your advice and views and listen to them, and that I take them into account in making a decision.”

Consultation – when genuine – is a relatively easy and effective way to increase buy-in without diluting decision-making power.

At the same time, it’s important to differentiate between consultation and negotiation. Leaders who confuse the two end up seeking consensus rather than buy-in and find themselves being steered by the winds of public opinion. This can be time-consuming and lead to great uncertainty, especially when public opinion is divided.

Collaborative leaders respect the collective wisdom of the team


Was Abbott the most unpopular leader in recent history?

While leaders absolutely do have to make decisions – and sometimes unpopular ones – they also need to respect and engage the people around them.

In announcing his leadership challenge, Turnbull said simply:

“We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people….

“We need to be truly consultative with colleagues, members of Parliament, senators and the wider public. We need an open government, an open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and, of course, further afield.”

The essence of collaborative leadership is the fundamental assumption that all people are equal – not necessarily in their authority to make decisions, but in their humanity and their ability to make a unique and valuable contribution.

Collaborative leadership involves managing diverse stakeholders

While Turnbull’s appointment to the Prime Ministerial office might, on the surface, seem like an opportunity for radical policy change – particularly in relation to controversial issues like climate change, marriage equality and the role of the monarchy – commentators have been quick to point out that Turnbull is unlikely to pursue his own personal views on these matters.

To manage the various factions within the Coalition, Turnbull will need to integrate a range of interests and come up with solutions that are acceptable to a broad range of stakeholders. He has already demonstrated a willingness to do this – for example, his proposed process on the same-sex marriage issue shows him putting his own strong views aside in favour of a more collaborative approach.

We hope that he is able to bring some creativity to this process, in order to create value rather than merely compromise.

Ultimately, collaborative leadership is built on a foundation of trust

Collaborative leaders know that real leadership is not a right bestowed by a title. It is a privilege earned by building and preserving trust.

It’s very difficult to influence someone if they do not trust you. And, for various reasons, the past three leaders had lost the trust of the Australian people.

In particular, the leadership coup that saw Gillard take the top job from Rudd, and her subsequent failure to honour key election promises, spelled disaster for her leadership prospects. She came to represent the transience of truth – and trust – in politics.

Once trust is broken, it can be extremely difficult to repair. As Harvard negotiation expert and lecturer Bruce Patton puts it: “People underestimate the difficulty of rebuilding relationships.”

Collaborative leaders value trust and will focus on building and maintaining it. They don’t take it for granted.

* * *

So is Turnbull the real deal? Only time will tell.

For Turnbull to be successful in his new role, he’ll need to follow through on his promise to hold a clear vision, be genuinely consultative, and explain his decisions to the Australian people.

With any luck, we might see the return of collaboration – and dignity – to Australian politics in the months and years to come.

What leadership lessons have you picked up from the recent leadership spill or politics in general? How do you see collaborative leadership being practised in your organisation? Please share your comments below!

To learn more about interest based negotiation, we recommend the book “Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher & William Ury.” 

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