The Challenge of Leadership


I have been having lots of conversations about leadership among family and friends lately. There’s been a lot of disappointment as well as a few reasons to celebrate. 

These blog essays have focused a lot on the impact of leaders and managers on Disability Inclusion. And a recent essay looked at Champions. 

It’s worthwhile looking at DEN leadership again, to see if my views have changed from 12 months ago – and earlier. 

A reflection on leadership

Management and leadership are not the same thing. Not all managers are leaders, and not all leaders are managers. That is a pity, but that’s what we must live with.

Each function has its own difficulties – both are hard and to be done well must be worked at. 

In saying both are hard, each has a set of capabilities that must be refined through learning, reflecting and mentorship. 

In any contemporary setting we shouldn’t expect anything less – and yet such an approach is so often lacking. 

A bit of history

I joined the DEN when it started in ADHC in July 2010. We elected as Chair Michael Evans, a regional Home Care manager from Albury.  Michael quickly became much beloved of the membership. 

After Michael we had a run of Chairs who were fairly junior – the last one was a grade 5/6. These Chairs lacked Michael’s skills and they were comparatively ineffectual. 

Michael didn’t have just status on his side. As a regional manager he had supervision responsibilities and participated in regional and statewide management meetings. He was also at ease in talking with executives. He had insight into how the department worked and was able to offer good advice to the members. 

When I became DEN Chair in November 2016, I lacked many of Michael’s qualities. I had some to lesser degrees. I had been a manager. I had some insight into how the department worked. I had enough comfort with working with senior staff to form good alliances. 

In late 2019, as I was thinking through who should follow me, I became convinced that DEN Chairs should have management experience and be at grade 9/10 at least. Status, management experience, and ability to confidently engage with seniors are not assurances of success. But they seemed to me to be the essential foundation. 

The disappointments of leaders and managers

Leaders and managers are humans doing difficult jobs to their best ability. Few are likely to win our enduring affection and respect. For the most part we should be grateful that they are not awful. That might seem like a harsh observation, but the reality is that the norm is tolerable and the exceptionally awful and the exceptionally good are rare. Avoiding the exceptionally awful is most important – where possible. 

My point is that very good to great leadership and management is less common than we’d like. It is therefore important to have minimal requirements that can, at the very worst, deliver tolerable results. 

The better the leader/manager the better the chances of getting good outcomes. 

Picking leaders

Most people will have experiences that convince them that recruitment of managers must be fundamentally flawed, given the number of barely tolerable to awful ones who are recruited. 

When it comes to electing leaders, politicians remind us that, once again, the system must be flawed. 

Of course, there’s always the matter of ambition. A lot of folks who aspire to leadership roles are not good leaders in any functional way. Not even the laying out of selection criteria will convince them they do not have the needed skills, experience, and maybe not the developed personal attributes. The outcomes of recruitment processes also demonstrate that selection panels don’t have that insight either. 

Elections exacerbate the problem because voters don’t necessarily have the skills to access candidates, even when voting in their own interests. 

When I came to the DEN chair role I didn’t get there because I was elected. I had been vice Chair and the incumbent Chair had resigned suddenly. I found myself in the job. I wasn’t even given a heads up by the Chair he was about to quit.

At the time the membership had dwindled, and members were frustrated and dispirited because little worthwhile had happened for 4 years. I had the challenge of rebuilding the membership numbers and the DEN’s standing in the department. 

was elected as Chair in early 2018. I had earned that. That was a rare instance of being able to demonstrate on the job that I could be worthy of being elected to the role.

The reality is that we collectively guess whether a person is up to the job. The good thing about elections is that after a time we can change our mind or affirm our choice. The unfortunate thing about recruitment is that we are often stuck with bad choices for a while.


Leading and managing are two hard jobs that can be performed alone or together – but we can’t assume they go together. 

People-leading skills are developed through experience and in the public sector that usually means having a supervisory role as a manager or team leader. 

The ability to have insight into how a department works is usually associated with exposure to decision-making processes and decision-makers and this generally comes with relative seniority. Having a sense of internal culture and politics also helps a great deal. Hence status and grade become important. 

This is not to say that there are people with great leadership potential at junior grades. But potential is not the same thing as established capability. 

A key role should not be a learn-on-the-job opportunity for a person with potential – unless there is great mentoring and coaching available. That rarely happens. Mostly such a role refines existing proven capacity. 

One of my absolute rules as DEN chair was a relentless commitment to professionalism. That meant putting in the hard yards of personal development, listening to sage advice from allies and champions and getting feedback from members. 

When I set up the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team in 2018, I had a bunch of people who kept me grounded, told me off, and provided a constant stream of insight and inspiration. 

Management is about keeping resources aligned to purpose using knowledge, insight, and influence. Leadership is about building relationships of trust and respect to bring people on a shared journey. A leader is often a way finder and a diplomat.

We always do the best we can, but we always must ask whether our best is sufficient at any time – and take action to address the situation when it is not. 

What I have read in the past year’s research, and what I have gleaned from conversations with friends and family affirms my belief that important management and leadership roles must be grounded in assured capabilities, proven personal attributes, experience and wisdom. So often these attributes are not clearly sought for or sufficiently assessed. This serves nobody.

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