Last year I watched Argo at the cinema and walked out having enjoyed it, but never thinking that it might be the best movie Oscar winner. Last night I caught up with one of the beaten contenders, Lincoln. I thought it was very good also, and the sort of movie that might easily have received the top gong. It wa vivid in portraying a time and place, and Daniel Day-Lewis was marvellous as Lincoln – he’s been one of the very best actors going around for a while now.

Regardless of all that, my interest in this film is less about the relative quality of movie-making, and much more about the story, the history, and ultimately, the man.

It’s funny how Abraham Lincoln seems so universally revered, even in such a far away place like Australia. I grew up believing him to be some kind of paragon of humble virtue. My nephew, not yet 15, is fascinated by him. Through all the tales told of him he has come across as an endearing, unpretentious character of great moral courage and fortitude. His folksy ways, naive wisdom, his infuriating home spun parables and above all his innate belief in right, justice, and the best in humanity set him apart from so many lesser leaders.

Is that a true reflection of the man? It is, pretty much, according to the movie. It’s hard not to be drawn to such a character as portrayed on screen. Truth of it is that though there were some who reviled him in his day, he also drew unnatural affection, even love, from the people he led. I think they recognised something that has come to be enshrined in history: the innate decency and honesty of the man.

Watching I wondered how American history might be different, and the USA of today a different place, had there been another man but he in the White House in the Civil War years? How would the war have ended? Might it never have started? Would the slaves have been emancipated? And so on. The other side of this question is to ask what we would remember of Lincoln if there was no Civil War for him to deal with? Would be seen as just another serviceable, even mediocre, president; or would he had found something else to elevate above the average? Did the hour make him, or did he make the hour?

Watching something like this it is virtually impossible not to reflect on the sorry state of our leaders today. I wondered what our leaders would think watching this. Would they be inspired? Would they question their own motives and actions? Would they be roused to more altruistic, even idealistic, leadership? On all counts I thought not. Such are our leaders today that I think they are incapable of such reflection. The door is closed: they see a piece of entertainment and move on from it. In the place of that conscience inside instead there are out of touch advisers whispering in their ears about polling and tactics. Their thinking is so shallow, so driven by expediency, that they are no longer capable of that deep thought required to formulate an independent vision of what can be, what should be, and how.

I’m a cynic, clearly, and it is movies such as this which highlight the fact. The times are very different now, but people not so much changed in their vital make-up. Attitudes and beliefs generally are more liberal, but it is the shift in the times, not the person. We are still subject to the same influences as ever. The times may be different, but as people we still seek the same things as we ever have. You can argue what they are. For me it is clarity of vision, moral strength, independence of mind, intellect applied to the world we live in, and leadership that combines compassion with honesty, and the passion to make a real difference.

This is possible. The movie exposed Lincoln’s wily cunning to achieve a just end that he knew he could not let go of. Amid the humanity that drove him there was the knowledge – far above anyone else of that time – is that the Union could not survive the civil war without the emancipation of the slaves becoming law. It was a bitter struggle, but how poetic it is to watch such a story knowing that the US president himself is black. That’s how far things have come, and how far ‘normal’ has shifted.

Leading from behind

Leadership these days is not what it used to be. Used to be that being a leader meant taking some risks, about getting out front and potentially leading the way into uncharted territory. There have been plenty of hairy chested leaders over the ages who did just that and have passed into legend. Of course you don't need to be a Hannibal or a Napoleon to be a leader. Leadership comes in different guises and the toughest often is moral leadership – standing up for what is right and defying the odds to fight for it. Abraham Lincoln, Churchill, Nelson Mandela are leaders of that ilk.

Most of us never reach such lofty heights, yet the principles of leadership remain the same. Unfortunately, those principles have been undermined in recent years – coincident in the main with the rise of Gen Y.

I always remember Paul Keating decrying Bob Hawke because he was not a true leader. Leaders lead he said, they take people with them. Hawke, he said, consulted before he acted, sought consensus on what to do and ended up following – if that is the word – from behind. That was Hawke's style, but he was ahead of his time in many ways. In the years since that has become almost the norm.

Australian politics is a dismal example of weak leadership. Lawrie Oakes said as much recently when he called the leaders of the two main political parties 'pygmies'. That's a fair call. No-one in Australian politics actually leads, though in his early days Rudd showed signs that he might. Both leaders are too concerned with pleasing the electorate, in playing to the masses and giving them what they want – rather than what they need. None of them have the strength of character to actually stand for something and to show the way. That's a distant memory. Instead we have a disastrous government and an ineffectual opposition, and a ship of state that drifts aimlessly, becalmed.

To some degree this leadership style has spread itself to the management classes, where there is even less excuse for it. Our leaders are democratically elected, but managers are appointed. A business is not constructed on democratic lines, though it ought be civilised. Managers, in theory, rise to their station because of some distinguishing expertise or knowledge: they know better than their peers. If there is ever the mandate to lead in the old fashioned way then this is it – yet so often it does not.

A business is not a democracy. Whilst it is wise to consult decisions must be made. The inefficiencies of the committee are a byword, yet in my experience committees now flourish, one after the other, and the managers who might once have set an agenda and a direction instead defer to the committees or wait upon their word. The hard, straight lines of previous eras have now become tangled. The decision making process has become bloated and inefficient and too many managers softcocks looking for a lead rather than taking it.

Of course right now I write out of my own frustration. I'm sick and tired of it. In this regard I am very much of another era. It's my upbringing in a home where my father was a strong personality and a decisive corporate leader of the old school. I inherited the traits of my fellow gen x-ers, which is generally can-do and low fuss: the shortest distance between two points after all is a straight line. We were unafraid to make a call, and perhaps revelled in it – I do still. Above all I guess it is a willingness to put your balls on the line rather than playing it safe.

Right now I feel myself professionally frustrated because in one of my jobs I am working in an organisation where it is almost impossible to get a decision made. The best it ever seems to get is agreement that something must be done and 'that seems a good idea' – but nothing happens. In place of decision making are pointless workshops that achieve little beyond fuzzy motherhood statements and agreement that something should happen. I beat my head against the wall again and again, I make representations and send increasingly blunt emails to which I get no reply. I reiterate proposals and present once more my ambitious plans. Yes, we'll do that they say – and yet months later and with Rome burning they still fail to act.

I fear I may have now lost that client, but I don't know what else I could do. It's always tricky as a consultant. Do you take the clients money in a cause you don't agree with? Or are you up front and give them the benefit of the expertise they are paying for? It must be the second I think if you have any scruples, but my attempts to do so have been scuttled by their continued unresponsiveness. Pretty poor in my book, especially considering I was giving them my time at a discounted rate to do the right thing by them. That's life. They may come running now, but it's up to them. Time they showed some leadership and did something.

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