Rhonda Brighton-Hall & James Hancock


Almost every debate right now is fractious. No matter how well intended, correct, or thoughtful the commentary, there’s someone who’s quick to correct – to tell others what they missed, what they got wrong, where they fell short.

So, as the divides in social media get louder, many leaders are stepping away from the microphone or the stage, and instead only using their voice via well-curated, screened social media posts that are often authored by their communications team . Alongside a crowd of reputable peers, they try hard to blend into the ‘right’ side of every one of those fractious debates.

As we find ourselves at the current societal crossroads, what should we reasonably expect from leaders? What would we love to see from them and what do we need?

Do we need woke?

There are two definitions of ‘woke’ and they tend to blur together in our understanding.

One is “having or marked by an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those involving the treatment of ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities”.

I think we all agree that we need that kind of awareness as a baseline.

The second, which is noted as (or is it intended to be) ‘disparaging’, is “of or relating to a liberal progressive orthodoxy, especially promoting inclusive policies or ideologies that welcome or embrace ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities”, can sometimes feel purely performative. When this type of ‘wokeness’ is perceived in leadership, or where intent is seen as self-promoting, it can have unintended cultural impacts, and can send the important (and often difficult and complicated) societal discussions spiralling into cynicism.

What’s going wrong with the good intent?

A recent article published in the Australian Financial Review caught our attention this week. It was titled, The short-lived era of the woke CEO is already over’ (gated).

In short, with predominantly US-based examples, it challenges the impact of the ‘woke’ CEOs versus their intended impact. Their intent is often to support worthwhile social movements, but they’re more often faced with a group of people who think they have no right to be speaking on that specific issue.

The majority of the public think they should stick to running their companies, and believe they have no right to go around telling the rest of us how to think, vote, and behave.

And that may be fair enough. While there are many awesome examples of leadership in Australia, most leaders share many of the same shortcomings as the rest of us.

Eventually, without directly saying so, the article speaks to how the risks of ostracising your workforce and/or customers and community, often outweigh the potential gains that could be made by connecting correctly with public sentiment in these often divisive debates.

The Australia Day example

A great example of where these perceived to be ‘woke’ leadership qualities often arise is during conversations about Australia Day.

Over decades of debate, we’ve pretty much landed on ‘Everyone wants a day to celebrate this country, but not on a date that is offensive to some people’.

However, instead of using their power and influence to start a thoughtful debate about changing the date, the main voices we heard from CEOs was about their personal circumstances. They’d say things like, “I’m working on Australia Day”.

While there is positive intention behind this statement, it only scratches at the surface of what needs to be done (and therefore can feel performative) and avoids the bigger-picture, more impactful conversations, such as:

–        Conversations about a better date

–        Clear examples of lobbying the government to change the date

–        Discussions about the industrial mechanics of a public holiday

On top of this, CEOs often work on public holidays, weekends and nights , so working on a random Thursday is hardly newsworthy.

So, what could be said and done instead?

The Spiderman quote, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ comes to mind for us. Sure, it might be a bit of a cliche, but it’s a pretty effective way to demonstrate the expectations we have of those people who hold big, high-profile jobs. They’ve got thousands of eyes on them each day.

They can certainly jump on a popular hashtag on Twitter, curate a short statement, work a public holiday, or be interviewed about their perspectives on a topical issue, but if they really wanted to put their power – and reputation – on the line to make a difference, the reality is that actions are much more important than words.

What does visible leadership look like?

Amongst all the great leaders, we can find a wealth of examples of doing more than a hashtag, and taking actions that do change a debate and actually moves things forward.

Here are a couple of examples just from the last week:

 The simple actions of Andy Murray. A giant in the tennis world, he plays a ridiculously long 6hour game, ending at 4am, and he wins. At the end of a game, racked with cramping legs and exhaustion, and without a word of complaint, he cleans the court – taking every water bottle, fruit skin and bandage with him, leaving the court spotless. Then, he made a speech, speaking to the fact that a 4am finish was not only hard for him and his opponent, but for the community of people who support them to play the game – the ball kids, the spectators, the referees, and others behind the scenes of the game.

In the ensuing 48 hours, every other player started to do the same thing. That’s visible, and effective, leadership. It doesn’t have to be about taking a stance on the big stuff (although, that’s often great). It often comes from seemingly small acts, such as cleaning up after yourself and showing authentic appreciation for the effort of others.

The leadership style of Anthony Albanese. As despair rages in Alice Springs over an increase in violence rates, he shows up, and, as soon as he arrives, he’s aggressively asked, ‘Well, what are you going to do about this?” To this he says “I’m going to talk to people and listen”. This is a simple statement that lacks fuss or fanfare; it’s just real. That’s exactly what leaders should do.

Then he headed into hours of discussions and debate around this complex and difficult situation and tried to courageously come up with some actions that might have a positive impact.

When he emerges, he talks about the decisions made by the entire group and puts forward some actions, noting there’s still a lot of work still to be done. There’s no sugarcoating of the facts. Instead of sweeping the hard stuff under the rug, or skimming across the surface, he’s showing it off in plain sight and asking the collective to weigh in.

The courage and leadership of Jelena Dokic. The previous world #4 women’s tennis player, and world-class commentator, showed vulnerability and bravery by talking about the incessant trolling and fat shaming she endures, and explained some deeply personal aspects of her life.  These are examples that many women can relate to, and changes the whole discussion around her to refocus (appropriately) on her awesome and expert commentary.

The consistency and lifelong commitment of Professor Tom Calma. 45years (and counting) years of work to bridge the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and a lifelong body of work to change the future through education. Today is our 2023 Senior Australian of the Year, and actively authoring a better future for us all.

The foresight and vision of Shelley Reys. Quite famous for her Ted Talk that brings Welcome to Country to life, but even more influential in her decades long crusade for both reconciliation and a truly Australian Identity that is inclusive for all, and speaks to who we are and will be.

The clarity of Craig Foster.  As NSW Australian of the Year, the former Socceroos captain has used every inch of his power and platform to raise awareness of the plight of refugees in Australia (namely Bahraini refugee, Hakeem al-Araibi). Foster consistently puts his voice, body, time, and work on the line to further human rights.

In every speech, social media post, TV appearance and interview, he weaves in, with absolute clarity, the message he will forever use sport to make the world a better and fairer place – for all humans.

He is a living breathing example of the time and effort that it takes to move beyond performative messaging that’s usually shared with optics in mind, to a perspective that actually moves the needle on important issues.

Where to from here?

If you have worked your whole life and find yourself with a big platform, by definition, you have great responsibility and opportunity. You can choose to use that influence purely for the organisation you lead, and to keep yourself safe from criticism and cynicism, or you can elect to take that responsibility further and make a positive difference to many others. To do the latter, you may choose one way is to step into the societal debates that matter most.

But if you do elect to use all the opportunities your platform affords you, you will need to do more than repeat a curated hashtag. Your power is far greater than that, and therefore people’s expectations will be higher too.

Words are fine, but they need to be backed up by visible leadership – that’s everything from small gestures, grand gestures, lobbying and influencing, joining a debate with options and ideas – all of it.

You want to simply lead a business?  You do you.
You do not have a responsibility to play a bigger role than the big role you’ve already signed up.

You want to play a broader role in leading society? Then people will expect to see a little more.