Reframing political leadership: If you’re going on the attack, don’t be the victim


In recent Australian history we have seen the rise of our political leaders positioning themselves as victims. It provides an interesting insight into the psychological reaction to the pressure and stresses of modern-day public positions where your every move is scrutinised and commented on by people that believe they are self-professed experts in everything.

The most recent example is Malcolm Turnbull. I have a lot of respect for Malcolm having dealt with him on a number of occasions over many years. He was a great listener and always took consideration of differing views before taking a course of action, much like a lawyer really.

This is not the Malcolm we see today in the many media reports about his book. Prior to entering politics Malcolm was an extremely successful businessperson and lawyer. Perhaps this was his undoing. He believed in his own success and that alone would carry him through into politics.

Malcolm did become Prime Minister and the bar was set very high in terms of what we expected him to achieve, although he faltered. As a result, he came across as being indecisive. From the outside he ran his Prime Ministership much like a barrister would prosecute cases – finish one and move onto the next.

Being Prime Minister requires more. Having worked in politics myself, it requires a simple vision and one that is clear to the public and can be communicated that way. In other words, it requires people to understand what “you stand for”. With Malcom this seemed to change constantly, and the inconsistencies began to show and undermine what he was trying to achieve.

Politics is a tough game; it is not for the faint hearted. In the modern political era, one characterised by the rise of instant news, as a politician you are literally on call 24/7 and if you aren’t on call you are being talked about, abused by keyboard warriors for things other people have said about you, that you may not have said at all. Yes, fake news.

Then add a further layer of complexity with your “fellow loyal” Parliamentary members waiting for that misloaded word, that little trip up and signs of vulnerability that allow a cabal of misfits to count the numbers.

Though here is the thing, we know all this. Parliamentary leaders know what they are getting themselves into. In order for someone to become a Parliamentary Leader they have to step on the egos of many politicians to rise through the ranks. So, if they believe, and I don’t think many do, that they are going to get undying loyalty from their fellow party members, they should not have gone into politics in the first place.

Why is it we have had a litany of leaders put their own ego before that of the people they serve and position themselves as victims? Do we really care what happened behind the scenes? I would put my money on the average person, or the silent majority not giving two hoots about what happened behind the scenes. The latte drinking intelligentsia in our capital cities and Canberra, on the other hand, lap it up and hit Twitter with a vengeance, the consequence of which is a future generation of intellectuals and journalists with elongated thumbs.

Yet for some reason we have had a long line of former political leaders who have lost their leadership, or never gained it in the first place, share in public what happened behind the scenes, which basically paints them as a victim. In recent Australian history we have also had the unusual pantomime of Prime Ministers being removed by their own party.

Why is this happening?

In former years politics was a calling that people entered as a public service, a public duty. They tended to be people who had a great level of experience in other professions and then entered politics “to pay it back” so to speak. In the modern political era, we have the rise of the political profession, those that rise through the party ranks, slaying their rivals with aplomb along the way to get to the top of the gravy train as a “leader”. Most don’t make it, the select few do.

They know no other way to exist except by killing off the opposition in their own party let alone the competing political party. The goal is to become the leader. You have to question whether this breeds the best. Due to the battles they have survived and the admiration they have received by their internal admirers and some in the journalistic field, they feel a sense of privilege. In Malcolm Turnbull’s case he had already developed a sense of privilege before entering politics.

When they don’t achieve what they set out to achieve because the axe fell early on their political agenda wielded by their “loyal” fellow members, stories get retold, conversations get developed and history warped in a way whereby they end up being positioned as the victim.

The “victimhood” becomes their legacy. The lines begin to blur on what they actually achieved while being the leader, and the media and others go into overdrive to espouse the victim’s story and tell it over and over again until it becomes the ultimate truth.

Slayers don’t like to be slayed. That is at the hub of it. They can’t get it into their minds that they were defeated at their own game. The response is to go on the attack and blame everyone else for their downfall, when in reality the seeds in their downfall were sown in their own prior actions.

Of course, they made mistakes, we all do. But in the world of politics making mistakes can be fatal, particularly when mistakes are aligned with frailty and an admission can be perceived or labelled as a weakness. Trump is a case in point.

Going on the attack as a means to avoid being labelled as someone that has made mistakes is a very common trait of playing the modern political game. Trump is a master of going on the attack, although going on the attack just makes you a much bigger target. Furthermore, going on the attack by painting yourself as a victim completely undermines and belittles your legacy. It is almost complete denial that you ever did anything wrong and we know that is not the case – we all make mistakes. True leadership is own up to it, admit it, and move on. If you are going to go on the attack, don’t position yourself as a victim. Ultimately people will see through being a victim and not accord the key to the door of your own legacy.

People admire and look up to other people that, despite all the challenges they have been through, come out the other end humbled and better for the experience, even if they have lost. Pit that against someone who is bitter, twisted and continually sprays at other people to cover their own weaknesses, frailties or defeats.

The only person whose reputation gets damaged by “positioning” themselves as a victim is the perceived “victim”. They are the core of their own reputational damage.

Being humble in the face of defeat is the mark of a true leader. If people use playing the victim as a method of trying to restore their own reputation, they miss one vital factor.

Reputation does not exist in your mind it exists in the mind of others. You can influence your own reputation but never have control over it. Playing the victim card is a very risky way of trying to resuscitate a reputation. Throwing the victim card on the table gives others full licence to push, probe, debate and disseminate your reputation. In other words, you lose any control over your own reputation and leave it in tatters in the Twittersphere. Your reputation becomes the victim of your own making.

Mark Gell is a Partner with Reputation Edge,


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