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What to know about Australian vs. American leadership styles

The countries’ two very different leadership styles can be an issue when it comes to doing business with each other. Here’s what to be aware of.

As I wrote in a previous article, America and Australia on the surface share similar cultural and political affinities. Although this is still true, without much analysis this belief can be disarming because just below the veneer there are significant differences for business especially when it comes to leadership.

Living in the US but travelling often to Australia as I do at present, provides for some interesting observations. When back in Australia,  I am often asked, ‘How is President Obama doing? Will he win the upcoming election?’ From a distance, many Australians that I have spoken to seem to admire Obama and struggle to see why there is not strong support for him in the US. They like his style, his persona and what he is seen as trying to do, seems to makes good sense to an Australian.

I believe one of the major factors for Obama’s relatively low approval rating in the US is actually his style of leadership. And interestingly, his style of leadership resembles more of an Australian style. If President Obama had, after taking office, been seen to be more individual and less bipartisan, more aggressive and more negative about the state his predecessor and the Republican Party had left the economy and country in, I believe he would have had greater popularity now in the US.

The angst I hear in the US often is ‘what has Obama done?’ Well actually he has done a great deal but he has not been as aggressive, up front, commanding about it and communicating it. A good leader in the US is recognised as having exceptional qualities and is an outstanding performer. And he/she  lets people know. The perception of President Obama is that because he hasn’t been assertive, he has not led well.

In my time in the US, I have often asked Americans who is their pick for best President of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the names I receive often identify Republican or Democrat voters. However, the two most favoured are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Both Presidents were seen as leaders who believed in themselves and their country and led with clear direction and purpose. Americans want their leaders to be upfront, aggressive and be seen to be in control. They expect recognition on outstanding national and individual qualities and are confused when this is not recognised. They expect and want their leaders to be better than them.

However Australia, which has a vastly different underlying culture, has its own leadership style that isn’t as readily recognised. The key to Australian leadership style is one of fellowship, or leading by walking alongside, as distinct to leading by being in front. Australian leaders need to show high levels of performance for those who are following to accept them, without coming across as being obnoxious or too charismatic.  (The Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well!).

Australians value egalitarianism and this plays out especially in what is seen as effective leadership. Australians will follow and respect a leader if he is not arrogant in his leadership style. Australians have a problem with perceived attitudes of ‘I am the best and know the most’. Although this style may not resonate in the US, it has certainly served Australia well and brought much success on the world stage.

The idea of ‘mateship’ comes alive in the Australian context. Leading by utilising the fellowship style implies that those who follow do so because of a personal connection to the leader. This is clearly demonstrated when one looks at the two longest serving Prime Ministers of Australia, Bob Hawke and John Howard. Both were intent on being ’mates’ with the Australian people. This was Hawke’s natural style and Howard had to work at it but ultimately succeeded. Australians connected to their ‘ordinariness’. Australians were OK with their success so long as they didn’t sense that the Prime Minister thought he was better than them. By contrast in the US, the President who is seen as the worst leader of recent times is George W. Bush. One of the images he tried to build with the American people was the guy you could have a beer with – their mate. It didn’t work because they wanted a leader to be someone better than them.

To be an effective leader in Australia, the person must be respected. In the US, the position is respected and the person in that position must live up to the expectation. Trust and respect are key elements of leadership in both America and Australia, but how that is achieved is vastly different. Holding a position in society is more significant to an American than it would be to an Australian who respects individual worth before status.

In the current election campaign in the US it is interesting note that the Presidential candidates are referred to by former titles from previous roles. Mitt Romney is referred to as Governor Romney and Rick Santorum as Senator Santorum even though they have not held the positions the titles are referring to for many years, however the titles imply status and position. In the US people maintain their penultimate title for the rest of their lives.

Without doubt the impact of Paul Hogan’s character Crocodile Dundee in the US has been very powerful to put Australians on the map there. Americans love the imagery of Australia – partly because of Hogan’s character. Many Americans mention their dream to travel to Australia much because of the perception of Australia as developed by Hogan. While this image has been great for tourism and Australians are seen as fun loving and welcoming, I am not convinced it has helped Australian business and leadership move forward in the US. Business for Americans is very serious and implies status and the question for Americans considering Australians is how can a fun-loving person who plays down status, lead a serious business?

In contrast, I have also found that Australians see Americans as being superficial and have difficulty forming close and deep relationships that last long. Australians ask, ‘How can we follow a leader that doesn’t want to get to know us, understand us and walk with us?’

When comparing the two styles it is not about whether one is strong or weak, right or wrong, but ultimately what method is effective; which style gets things done and achieves the desired vision and goals. If a leader in either country did not understand the very different cultural drivers of that the public are comfortable with and see as the norm, they would struggle to lead and be effective and successful.

Leadership is essential for an organisation to effectively achieve its desired goals. But leadership is not provided in a vacuum. It is heavily influenced by the country’s culture and undergirding values; how the work is undertaken (what are the acceptable norms and behaviours) and its affect on people. The egalitarian culture of Australia demands a leadership style of ‘fellowship’ whilst the ‘individual enhancement’ culture of the US demands a leader to be seen as successful, up front and in control.

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Derek Linsell

Derek Linsell

Derek Linsell founded Apricot Consulting in 2003 following a distinguished career in the not-for-profit sector and as a consultant with a Melbourne based business. He brings not only the personal experience of having worked with influential leaders, but also makes valuable connections and introductions for others to learn from the voices of experience and maturity.

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