leadership, Startup Advice

Lead or languish: Why we desperately need strong business leadership now

Fergus Watts /

AFL Fergus Watts

Former AFL player and Bastion Collective founder Fergus Watts.

As the Australian employment landscape is about to undergo unprecedented upheaval, the nation needs strong leaders at every level of government, business, education and community. But where is that strong leadership?

Sadly not in government, as the decision to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage showed last year. Our nation’s leaders had an opportunity to step up and make a historic and inevitable decision but lacked the political courage.

The decline in political leadership in this country has led to a decline in public trust and confidence. As both parties in recent governments have been consumed by internal brawling and leadership challenges, opportunities to lead the nation with the moral courage and wisdom required for tough decisions affecting the nation’s future prosperity are too often squandered in favour of short-sighted political bickering.

Australia’s corporate landscape also suffers the same dearth of leaders who are willing to stick their neck out and make a stand when it counts.

Corporate leaders are often too focused on the immediate share price and their short-term bonuses to enact a bold vision that might bring short-term pain but will lead their company and staff to a brighter future.

It’s a bad time to be asleep at the wheel.

Artificial intelligence and robotic technology are about to radically transform Australia and the world’s workforce and employment opportunities, not just for low-skilled workers but for the highly qualified occupations. The advent of cognitive computing has finally enabled machines to think, solve problems and make decisions based on vast sums of changing data.

A survey by the World Economic Forum predicts that by as soon as 2020 — yes, just over two years from now — artificial intelligence, robotics and automation will lead to the disappearance of 7.1 million jobs in 15 of the world’s major industrialised nations.

Where is the political and business leadership showing Australia a path through these tumultuous times ahead?

I believe ANZ chief executive Shayne Elliott gets it. He has the first to boldly outline a radical plan to cut the bank’s workforce, branches and dependence on mortgage brokers by embracing data and technology with the adoption of “risk-based pricing” for customers. This game-changing disruption could leave competitors with conventional fixed pricing of deposits and loans in ANZ’s wake. Under the risk-based pricing model, the most valued customers are likely to move to get better rates while those banks with fixed pricing would get stuck with the lemons.

If Elliott’s reinvention of ANZ for a digital future pays off, it will propel the bank to a vital market-leading position. He is courageously leading the bank to where it needs to be, rather than simply administrating the operations of today.

Business leaders need to make these bold and often painful decisions to not only survive change but to prosper in the future. Treading water is never a long-term option.

The education sector should also be moving decisively to prepare for inevitable change by equipping students for the workplace for the future. Many of the vocational skill sets being taught today will be obsolete tomorrow. While it doesn’t offset the millions of jobs that will soon be eliminated, the World Economic Forum predicts there will be 2 million new jobs at the higher end of the pay spectrum globally in areas of computing, mathematics and engineering.

The one constant in the workforce of both today and tomorrow is rapid change. We need to focus on how to produce flexible workers with the leadership and personal skills to prosper in the evolving work landscape ahead. The education system’s focus on vocational skill sets has often lacked nurturing a vital ingredient that tomorrow’s workers and leaders will need more than ever before — emotional intelligence.

We are not comfortable with failure in this country — a national trait which often stifles bold leadership decisions. But failing because we tried something new should be considered a badge of honour. It should be celebrated. We should want to fail more.We should risk exposing ourselves in order to attain heightened levels of success.

It is only when we are truly comfortable with failure that we will create emboldened leaders who can steer us into an inspiring future.

While America as the increasingly shaky “leader of the free world” is facing its own leadership crisis and political turmoil at this point in history, it was former First Lady Rosalynn Carter who eloquently summed up the importance of great leadership in tough times. She famously said: “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be.”

That’s a lead we should all follow.

 NOW READ: Why we’re failing at leadership

Fergus Watts

Fergus Watts is the founder and executive chairman of Bastion Collective, an integrated communications agency in Sydney, Melbourne and Los Angeles.

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  • Rohan Baker

    So allowing the public to vote on an important social change like the SSM is lack of political leadership? I hold you to account on that. While I’m no fan of the current soft left Turnbull government, he did take the SSM referendum to the last election as a platform then had it blocked by the minor Marxist parties in the senate.

    It’s the only thing that Turnbull has shown leadership on. But hey look over there, unicorns!

  • R R

    The second paragraph regarding the plebiscite destroyed this article. The plebiscite on SSM was very important and gave Australians a chance to vote on an important issue. It was also in line with The Liberal Party Conservative stance. The vote is now over. Move on as stop banging this drum.