Who are the real leaders?

By July 31, 2012Education, Society

Our universities are often seen as the home of future leaders, and we have two selection systems that purport to produce them— the Rhodes and Monash Scholarships. The Rhodes has been going since 1902, while the Monash is much more recent, having been established in 2002. Anyone who gets to a senior position in a university will have the experience of writing a reference for a student in his or her quest for a scholarship of this kind. A few get to sit on the selection committee ( I had a few years on the ACT selection committee for the Monash scholarships).

The short list consists of almost unbelievable young people. Their academic excellence is superlative; they have impressive sporting accomplishments, and they have done philanthropic work in a developing country. Their referees speak of them with awe. Choosing the best one or two is an agony. Eventually the list is selected, and then the young people go off to Oxford or, in the case of the Monash awards, to wherever they have asked to go.

What happens then is the real question. Over many years I started to ask myself what sort of outcome these elite selection systems had had for our country. The Monash is too young, but the Rhodes has been in operation for a century and more. And an underlying question in my mind has been, what is leadership anyway, and why does sending someone to Oxford (where I spent some years myself) produce leadership quality? Or, is leadership an innate quality, and does Oxford (and other famous universities) simply polish it? Or is the whole thing a pleasant myth?

I don’t have an answer, and I’m not sure I ever will  have an answer. I’ve known a few Rhodes scholars. Ralph Slatyer, who died a few days ago, was a Rhodes Scholar from Western Australia, and he did show leadership qualities as a scientist, an ambassador and a bureaucrat. The man who followed him from Western Australia the next year was Bob Hawke. So did he, in industrial relations and politics. But there were six Rhodes scholars a year, every year, from Australia (now nine) — say 600 for a century. What has been their combined effect? I’ve thought of finding out as a retirement project, but other things keep getting in the way.

On the whole, my suspicion is that leadership doesn’t work that way. Those who are brilliant at university are not always successful in the wider world. University is in many ways a sheltered workshop, one that nurtures eccentricity and allows intellectual ambition to expand. It’s a great place — I’m not knocking it — but the real world is more difficult. And being highly proficient at school and then at university, while it shows something, doesn’t show everything. As Howard Gardner showed in his marvellous book Multiple Intelligences, the well-rounded person is much more than someone who can pass exams easily.

My favourite selection system for leadership starts from the opposite premise: that you show leadership first, and then we enhance it. I am speaking of the Churchill Trust. It is decently old — established in 1965 — and now has produced more than 3500 Churchill Fellows. I have something to do with it, too, and am deeply impressed with what it does and has done. Its chief criteria are merit, based either on past achievements or future prospects, and benefit to the community. Churchill Fellows come from everywhere, and from every walk of life. Last year 107 Fellowships were awarded, from every State and Territory. The range of areas being explored is enormous.

Can I show that the Trust’s outcomes have been a great boon for Australian society? No, I can’t do that either. But each year, when I see who has been selected, what they have done, what they want to do, and why it should benefit us all, I am really chuffed. Why? Because while I am a meritocrat rather than a democrat, I have an extremely democratic view of merit! Humanity is diverse, and I think our task is to value the diversity and aspiration that improves the quality of life for everyone.

I think that the Churchill Trust does that as well as any body I know of, and it is instructive that a number of people and organisations have provided funds to sponsor Churchill Trust Fellowships in particular areas. And it is probably time that someone did the analysis of outcomes for these selection systems. I think that the Churchill system will win out.


Join the discussion One Comment

  • janeenharris@gmail.com says:

    The trouble with the Rhodes scholarship is that it is from the olden days. The new Monash scholarship is iffy. Who is it going to and what is their agenda.

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