The Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s authority has been forged in the fires of the challenge to her leadership by former foreign minister Kevin Rudd.
The brawl has enabled Gillard to transform her political persona from school ma’am to Prime Minister verite.
Women have a low tolerance for conflict, broadly speaking. We like to conciliate and defuse the problem. The events of the past month or so show that a showdown, handled with aplomb, can be well worth the trouble.
Rudd’s challenge showed us a new side of Gillard: tough, unflappable, sharply focused, clear and concise. We’ve had glimpses of it before, as she negotiated seemingly unwinnable legislation such as the carbon and mining taxes, through parliament, past the Greens and the Independents.
But these negotiations happened behind closed doors; the Labor leadership battle was out in the open – painfully, at times.
Gillard’s handling of Rudd’s challenge made her more likeable. She came across with authenticity and dignity – key qualities of successful leadership.
While firmly asserting her right to her position, Gillard managed to avoid the grubby implication from Rudd’s performance that he had a God-given right to the leadership role, that he was a saviour for the Labor party and for the nation itself.
Gillard turned the media attention into an opportunity to speak about her government’s achievements. In this she was ably supported by cabinet members such as Tanya Plibersek, the Federal Minister for Health, who steadily answered the relentless media questions, but managed to promulgate the government’s agenda with determination.
When Gillard told journalists that Labor could win the next election under her leadership, with the words, “There is not a defeatist bone in my body,” she was utterly convincing. When a journalist during a press conference called out something like “How are you coping, Prime Minister?”, Gillard’s tone was perfect. Her response – “I am fine, thank you. Next question” – was firm, business-like, ever so slightly terse.
The past week’s leadership battle exhorts women leaders not to run from conflict, but to embrace it when it is unavoidable. Gillard’s performance offers us a template for handling such a challenge to their authority and turning it to their advantage.
Kath Walters is the editor of LeadingCompany, a new site for the leaders of mid-sized and large organisations. It will launch on March 13. You can register for LeadingCompany’s free daily newsletter and download a free eBook here.