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Vaccine rollout highlights the difference between leaders and managers

The distinction between leaders and managers has never been more apparent than in this vaccine rollout debacle. For me the distinction can be summed up thus: a good manager does their best to make tea with the chocolate teapots procured by their leader.

Good managers implement the strategies devised by their leaders. Managers try to do the things that the leaders have thought up. Managers generally make shorter-term or immediate decisions whereas leaders set the longer-term direction.

A NSW Health vaccination centre.

A NSW Health vaccination centre.Credit:Kate Geraghty

One school of thought advanced by thinkers dating back to Ancient Greece, via the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, is that leaders are held to a social contract. We the plebs give up some of our freedoms to enjoy organisational or political order.

We expect and place our trust (and sometimes votes) in leaders to make correct decisions. They are supposed to be good at the “vision thing” as President George H.W. Bush termed it. We want them and their coterie of advisers to be able to look over horizons and around corners. We want them to be at least one or two moves ahead of the game. We expect that they have “war-gamed” the war before it started, not 18 months after the bombs started falling.

What role does luck play in careers?

What role does luck play in careers?Credit:Kerrie Leishman

Ultimately we expect our leaders to be lucky. Andrew Leigh, federal Labor member and former professor of economics, in his hilarious book, The Luck of Politics, recounts the bad-luck story of Jose Sanjurjo, leader in waiting of Spain and in exile at the end of the Spanish Civil War.

This pompous man arranged a light plane to return him triumphantly to his homeland. This was before the days of the hand luggage nazis placing limits on one’s carry-on bags, so he elected to take all of his military regalia on board. The overloaded plane crashed, killing Sanjurjo and clearing the path for Francisco Franco to take over as leader for the next 36 years.

Despite the prevalent role that luck plays in many careers, we have little truck for luck when it comes to deciding the fate of elected leaders. Interestingly, when things are going well for our leaders, rarely if ever do they attribute success to luck. Luck in politics is cast only when the play is a tragedy it seems.

Tragedy, classically in drama, involves the terrible unravelling of a decision made early on, that initially seems benign or beneficial. We expect our leaders, aided and abetted by the best minds available, to fully understand the implications of their decisions. Rarely are we going to be tolerant of bad “luck”. We are far more likely to sheet home poor outcomes to poor decision-making.

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