Kevin Rudd Political Leadership and Communication

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Let Them Eat Cake - How Mr Rudd was brought down by his own revolution

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“Let Them Eat Cake!” – How Mr Rudd was brought down by his own revolution

On July 14, the French will celebrate Bastille Day – that memorial of revolution against an uncaring and insensitive regime.  The downfall of the royal line swiftly followed, with some lovely post-beheading decorations in the main squares.  Today, our government was figuratively beheaded when the Labor Party ousted Mr Kevin Rudd after just 2 ½ years as Prime Minister, installing Julia Gillard in his place. Both events are cautionary tales for all leaders and aspiring leaders.

Hot on the heels of a massive financial crisis, the French people bristled at royalty who continued to live the high life while people on the street struggled to find bread to feed their families. The monarchy had heavily invested in foreign wars (including the American Revolutionary War) and was heavily in debt.

On top of this, the people felt empowered by the Enlightenment. The idea that leaders by birth or religion (the monarchy and Catholic Church) were the ones who should decide it all was not at all popular.

Frustrated with the prevarication of King Louis XVI, the people took power to themselves in spades and revolted. (Mel Brooks played King Louis XVI in his History of the World Part I.  When told the people were revolting, he famously replied, “You said it. They stink on ice!”)  After the revolt, King Louis was arrested and eventually beheaded for treason.

Robespierre came to control the Committee of Public Safety (sounds like a good government department) with autocratic fervour and summarily executed tens of thousands of Frenchmen and women.  He lasted a little under a year before himself being beheaded for his crimes.

There are many lessons that we can learn as leaders from the bloody French Revolution and the downfall of Kevin Rudd.

1) Activity does not equal leadership.

In his resignation speech to the nation, Mr Rudd listed a wealth of initiatives and achievements his government had undertaken. But Mr Rudd did not list the most important achievement that would have kept him in government: uniting the people behind a purpose.

The French king and subsequent government undertook many initiatives, but they did not have the long-term support of the people. Each time a bloody uprising took place, it was usually replaced by another. Without a clear, positive unifying vision, it is difficult to keep people behind you over the long term.

I have encountered many people in positions of authority who think that because they came up with a million ideas and forced them on people, that they were somehow great leaders.  That’s not leadership, that’s just ego. So often these initiatives do not meet the real needs of the people involved, despite the “brilliance” of the plan.

Both the Labor and Liberal parties need to be mindful that we don’t want a great big federal health care system if that ultimately means that it will be run with all of the efficiency and outcomes of either the home insulation scheme or the education building shemozzle. Nor do we want to siphon off funds from these key areas, for the sake of capitalist purity, to the point where we cannot adequately care for the sick or have world class education. Involve people in the solutions, create a vision people can unite behind and don’t just dictate from afar and crow about your “fundamental reforms”.

2) Before you speak, people must be heard.

People need to know that they have been heard and respected, in order to trust you as a leader. This doesn’t mean that a leader must automatically agree with every opinion. But Mr Rudd’s own “leadership style” became one of deciding for others and then bullying them into submission.Get the chop!

The French royalty did not pay enough attention to the people’s demands. The Reign of Terror that followed then swung so far in the other direction that it terrified all the people.

Our politicians need to be careful to consider the greater good and to ensure that people have adequate say. That’s why this is called a democracy, not a dictatorship. By the same taken, don’t swing so far the other way when you take the reins that the people baulk.

The ham-fisted announcement of the RSPT and any following “consultations” indicated how far the federal government had fallen from the “Can you hear the people sing?” approach employed in the lead-up to the last election. The revolution and beheading that has ensued was entirely predictable.

If you aspire to leadership, develop the habits now and act on them. It’s unsurprising how often people are so understanding and concerned when “one of the mates”, but as soon as they get into power they, like Robespierre, soon become the tyrant they despised.

That’s because once you are confronted with the complexities of leadership, you run back to the model you know. It’s like the son become a parent. He resolved to always be firm and calm with his kids, but some days are so much harder than others and he suddenly finds himself yelling like his father, “I told you to be quiet while I’m working, so shut your mouths NOWWW!!!”

When you suddenly “arrive” in leadership (as with distinct job promotions or the kinds of political transitions our democracy encourages), you try to do it differently at first, but after a while think, “This is so much harder than I thought.  I’ll just take over and do it my way!”

It takes more than good intentions to be a great leader – it takes plans, commitments, accountabilities and habits that prove and ensure future performance.

3) When you speak and act, show that you have heard.

Study after study shows that people put forth greater effort, not when you tell them to work harder, but when you show that you really, actually, personally care about those under your responsibility and help them to do their work better.

Legend has it that Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, looked down on the people and proclaimed with great insensitivity: “Let them eat cake!”  She didn’t actually, but the mere appearance of that attitude undermined the monarchy.

Louis appears to have actively worked to try to save France and its people, but he kept on living in opulence and the population resented it. He was hopeless as a communicator and a leader. He didn’t go out amongst the people. He didn’t stand alongside to help them feed their families.

Overseas, the BP chairman goes yachting while thousands upon thousands of gallons of crude oil spew daily into the Gulf of Mexico. After all, he’d had a hard day at the office telling others how to care for the “small people”. No wonder he is condemned by Americans as uncaring.

If you don’t communicate how you’re helping people, if you don’t show it by your actions, if you don’t let other people have a say in something that affects them, don’t be surprised when they cheer as the blade swishes down.

4) To lead, people must follow.

It’s a truism, of course.  I am astonished, however, by the number of people who think they are great leaders because they have money or position.

Being the senior executive does not mean you’re a great leader. It simply means you know how to climb a ladder. Nobody else necessarily wants to hold it steady for you, let alone follow you up there.

Prison guards get a lot of obedience, but if the prisoners could be somewhere else …

To put it another way, it’s no good charging into the Bastille to club the guards and suddenly realise that the crowd is still at the gates, thinking this is not such a good idea after all.

The French government supporting foreign wars in order to bring down the British and bring pride to the monarchy helped bankrupt the country. The people didn’t rally with pride in their king’s glorious campaigns.

Equally, it’s not a great idea to think up new taxes that will bring more money into your treasury, announce it as a fait accomplit and wonder why no one but the treasury is cheering.  “But don’t they realise it’s money to help them?!” Um, no.

How about a new incentive at work that will add hassle and time to everyone’s loaded and tired-out week, but that will ultimately bring in extra revenue and a bonus at the end of the year? Don’t expect staff to be pinning up pictures of you on the walls, emblazoned with the title “greatest leader of all time”.

Holding Back the TearsKevin Rudd holding back the tears

Only the cold-hearted will be unmoved by Mr Rudd holding back tears as he addressed the nation. No doubt he loves this country and was committed to his goals. Yet, his downfall was inevitable.

As a candidate, he promised a different version of himself than the one we got. He became bloody-minded, bureaucratic and belligerent. He stopped listening to people and kept complaining about how hard he worked.

If we had heard a few weeks ago the same Kevin Rudd we heard today – authentic, genuine, proud of his nation – then things might have been different.

Political and Business Leaders take note: It took the guillotine to bring out a little of Mr Rudd’s warmth, humility and humour. And that’s what we were missing.

Similarly, the smiling Ms Gillard must take note: most bloody revolutions end in counter-revolution and further insurgency. Her job is to immediately reconnect with all Australians and act on their concerns, to prevent a further coup.

Leadership is a tough challenge. I would never have wanted to be in King Louis’ place, or really in Mr Rudd’s. And we should give our leaders credit when they try to do the right thing. But if you aspire to those positions, you have to eat all the cake: and that includes taking care of the people under you, listening to them, responding appropriately to their concerns and working with them to achieve better results. Otherwise, you may just face the chop.


Peter McLean is director and principle consultant at Lamplighter Performance Consulting, partnering to improve communication, leadership and performance for individuals and organisations.

To enquire about growing in your communication and leadership abilities, contact us to arrange a discussion of your needs and see how we can help you become a high performing, productivity-driven leader.

Call us at +61 8 9288 1780 or contact us to arrange your discussion.

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