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Published 18 March 2013 11:54, Updated 22 March 2013 11:06
Getting on top of today before laying claim to tomorrow is Bill Shorten’s No.1 tip for being a successful leader. Photo: Josh Robenstone
Bill Shorten is a natural born leader who is smart enough to bide his time. Unlike most aspirants to prime ministerial office, Shorten is not a man in a hurry. A man on a mission; Yes. A man with a deadline; No. At 45, Shorten, although unambiguously ambitious, has no reason to covet the poisoned chalice that is the Labor leadership – he has plenty of time to realise his ambition.
After Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten is the name that most often comes up as the Labor heavyweight most likely to assume the prime ministership from the beleaguered Julia Gillard before the September 14 federal election. For Rudd, the prospect of leading Labor to the next election is about a sense of entitlement – reclaiming the PM’s job that was snatched from him by Gillard in his first term – and revenge.
What also sets Shorten apart from other ambitious politicians is the appreciation that there’s more to leadership than power. This is a clear message to be taken from Tony Walker’s revealing interview with Shorten in the AFR Weekend .
That’s worthy of one critical caveat, however: Shorten was one of the powerbrokers who helped secure Rudd’s job for Gillard, whose prime ministership has been more to do with power and hanging on to it than pursuing a grand vision for Australia. But let’s put that misadventure down to realpolitik.
There is no shortage of claimants to the “Future PM” mantle, but Shorten is more convincing than most. As national secretary of the Australian Workers Union Shorten came to prominence as the calm, unflappable source of regular media updates at the Beaconsfield mine disaster in Tasmania in 2006, when miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell were trapped alive for two weeks, a kilometre below the surface, before their triumphant rescue. He was elected to federal Parliament the following year.
Shorten, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation, occasionally shows signs of being overwhelmed by the hurly-burly of federal politics, such as his infamous act of fealty to Gillard during a moment of crisis: “I haven’t seen what she’s said, but let me say I support what it is she said.” That’s all the more reason for Shorten to bide his time, and perhaps he knows it.
In the meantime, it’s obvious that he has thought about what it means to be a leader – and his observations to Walker, although made in the context of the Australian Labor Party and the approaching election, clearly have a much wider application.
It is worth extracting some of those observations from Walker’s interview to present Shorten’s 10 tenets of leadership.
Asked if he aspired to lead the Labor Party, Shorten denied that he did “at this point”, firstly because he was loyal to Gillard (predictably enough), and secondly because “I think what matters is working on the areas I’ve got. You worry about what you’ve got rather than worrying about what you’re not doing.’’
“The way for us to win the next election – and it is a general formula – is to be the party that offers hope and optimism,’’ Shorten says. “We have to give people an affirmative reason to vote for us, not just a reason that we’re not the other side. That applies in this election, but I also think it applies for the next 20 years. Who’s got a better vision for the future?’’
Shorten’s view of leadership is the antithesis of the my-way-or-the-highway style of leadership. In this leadership framework, sustainable change is not achieved though connivance or blunt force, but by force of reason, inclusion and principle.
“[L]eadership is the ability to take people where they don’t always want to go. Leadership is the ability to bring people together . . . Leadership is being able to explain where people fit in the change process,’’ Shorten says.
“Leadership is having a long view,” Shorten says.
It is common for chief executives to claim they are too busy to keep up with their reading, but it’s hard to imagine how a leader can lead in an intellectual or current affairs vacuum. Shorten says he tries to set aside 5 to 10 per cent of his time for reading each week. When he spoke to Walker he was reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond.
Shorten believes in the power and rallying force of ideas, but he makes the distinction between encouraging a free flow of ideas and imposing the ideas of a few on the rest of the organisation.
“Organising around ideas is inevitable, especially in the Labor Party, which is made up of people who all have ideas about change. But when you start binding people on ideas you have probably gone too far,’’ Shorten says, referring to factions in the ALP, which he says have both a positive and negative force.
Shorten says he has no intention of disguising or minimising his past as a unionist to be more palatable to voters.
“Anyone who denies where they come from is a fake,’’ Shorten says. “The union background is part of who I am but it’s not exclusively who I am.’’
Shorten says Australians are not interested in hearing about how Labor is going to reform itself; they want to have a conversation that involves them and their aspirations for the future.
Asked about his prescription for reforming the ALP, Shorten responds: “First, before the next election, tempting as it might be to have a conversation about ourselves, we’re not going to. Let us have a conversation about what we’re going to do for Australia and Australians.”
The key to effective leadership is an effective organisation.
“[I]n the medium term we need to revisit how we [the Labor Party] make decisions, how we select candidates and how we involve people with ideas.’’
“We have to get people to think and believe we have a clear third-term agenda [around issues of productivity increases, skills and education, social justice and financial and jobs security],’’ Shorten says.
It’s unlikely that Bill Shorten will be putting his hand up for Julia Gillard’s job in the next few weeks – unless realpolitik demands otherwise – but when he does finally get around to staking his claim for the Lodge, there is no doubt that Shorten will have thought about what it will take to make arriving at his destination count.