Abbott’s response to feedback and the internal ructions within his Party reflect the nature of his mind and the internalised, probably unconscious story he holds about himself, his style and ‘who he is as a leader.’
It’s a trait he shares with many leaders who ultimately derail. It is evidence of rigidity grounded in a distorted self-belief and what it takes to ‘succeed.’
All of us benefit from feedback. Some of us are lucky enough to receive constructive, useful feedback – even if it’s hard to hear. The difference between those who learn and improve from feedback and those who don’t, is their response to it.
When we receive critical feedback, our first response is emotional. No one likes to hear that they’re not doing as well as they’d thought. The intensity of our response is typically more extreme when the feedback focuses on our style, rather than our skills.
Changing can feel like a distortion of self: ‘that’s just not me.’ As Herminia Ibarra writes in her fabulous article The Authority Paradox (HBR January 2015), ‘it can feel like a threat to their identity – as if they’re being asked to give up their ‘secret sauce.’’
This resistance is grounded in unconscious ‘egocentric bias’: an exaggerated and distorted impression of who we are, what we do and the notion that ‘I am right, you are wrong.’ It leads to unconscious rationalisation: ‘My style has worked for me in the past. It has contributed to my success. It’s who I am.’ It inevitably leads to inaction rather than self-correction.
An ability to move beyond this resistance, accept feedback and self-correct is a measure of how adaptive, inclusive and successful a leader will be.
Abbott became leader of the opposition by winning a ballot by one vote. It is easy to argue that he stepped into the role despite his behaviour and style rather than because of it.
As it turned out, his aggressive, relentless attacking style served him and his Party well. It unravelled Labor, they were unable to respond and they lost the last election.
However, the leadership practice required to be the opposition leader is different from the leadership practice required of the Prime Minister.
The difficulty for Abbott and the Liberal Party is that consciously or otherwise, Abbott believes his ‘success’ is directly aligned with ‘who he is.’ He is known to operate from the premise of ‘what you see is what you get.’ This in itself, is a clue to a rigid self-belief and inability to recognise that what you do and how you do it must be informed by where you are and the role you have.
Inclusive, adaptive leadership requires an ability to respond on a moment by moment basis to the context in which you find yourself. It requires the capacity to recognise and respond appropriately to the situation, the environment and the people to whom you have responsibility. It requires the ability to remove the shackles of outdated habits of mind and practice that stifle individual growth and development.
Abbott is unable to do that. And that’s terminal.