National Leaders’ thinking: Australian Prime Ministers

How complex are the interview responses of the last four Australian prime ministers? How does the complexity of their responses compare to the complexity of the U.S. presidents’ responses?

Special thanks to my Australian colleague, Aiden M. A. Thornton, PhD. Cand., for his editorial and research assistance.

This is the 4th in a series of articles on the complexity of national leaders’ thinking, as measured with CLAS, a newly validated electronic developmental scoring system. This article will make more sense if you begin with the first article in the series.

Just in case you choose not to read or revisit the first article, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • I am an educational researcher and the CEO of a nonprofit that specializes in measuring the complexity level of people’s thinking skills and supporting the development of their capacity to work with complexity.
  • The complexity level of leaders’ thinking is one of the strongest predictors of leader advancement and success. See the National Leaders Intro for evidence.
  • Many of the issues faced by national leaders require principles thinking (level 12 on the skill scale/LecticalScale), illustrated in the figure below). See the National Leaders Intro for the rationale.
  • To accurately measure the complexity level of someone’s thinking (on a given topic), we need examples of their best thinking. In this case, that kind of evidence wasn’t available. As an alternative, my colleagues and I have chosen to examine the complexity level of prime ministers’ responses to interviews with prominent journalists.

Benchmarks for complexity scores

  • Most high school graduates perform somewhere in the middle of level 10.
  • The average complexity score of American adults is in the upper end of level 10, somewhere in the range of 1050–1080.
  • The average complexity score for senior leaders in large corporations or government institutions is in the upper end of level 11, in the range of 1150–1180.
  • The average complexity score (reported in our National Leaders Study) for the three U. S. presidents that preceded President Trump was 1137.
  • The average complexity score (reported in our National Leaders Study) for President Trump was 1053.
  • The difference between 1053 and 1137 generally represents a decade or more of sustained learning. (If you’re a new reader and don’t yet know what a complexity level is, check out the National Leaders’ Series introductory article.)

The data

In this article, we examine the thinking of the four most recent prime ministers of Australia—Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull. For each prime minister, we selected 3 interviews, based on the following criteria: They

  1. were conducted by prominent journalists representing respected news media;
  2. included questions that requested explanations of the Prime Minister’s perspective; and
  3. were either conducted within the Prime Minister’s first year in office or were the earliest interviews we could locate that met the first two criteria.

As noted in the introductory article of this series, we do not imagine that the responses provided in these interviews necessarily represent competence. It is common knowledge* that prime ministers and other leaders typically attempt to tailor messages to their audiences, so even when responding to interview questions, they may not show off their own best thinking. Media also tailor writing for their audiences, so to get a sense of what a typical complexity level target for top media might be, we used CLAS to score 11 articles from Australian news media on topics similar to those discussed by the four presidents in their interviews. We selected these articles at random—literally selecting the first ones that came to hand—from recent issues of the Canberra Times, The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and Adelaide Now. Articles from all of these newspapers landed in the lower range of the early systems thinking zone, with a mean score of 1109 (15 points lower than the mean for the U.S. media sample) and a range of 45 points.

Hypothesis

Based on the mean media score, and understanding that politicians generally attempt, like media, to tailor messages for their audience, we hypothesized that prime ministers would aim for a similar range. Since the mean score for the Australian media sample was lower by 15 points than the mean score for the U. S. media sample, we anticipated that the average score received by Australian prime ministers would be a bit lower than the average score received by U. S. presidents.

The results

The Table below shows the complexity scores received by the four prime ministers. (Contact us if you would like a copy of the interviews.) Complexity level scores are shown in the same order as interview listings.

All of the scores received by Australian prime ministers fell well below the complexity level of many of the problems faced by national leaders. Although we cannot assume that the interview responses we scored are representative of these leaders’ best thinking, we can assert that we can see no evidence in these interviews that these prime ministers have the capacity to grasp the full complexity of many of the issues they faced (or are currently facing) in office. Instead, their scores suggest levels of skill that are more appropriate for mid- to upper-level managers in large organizations.

Prime minister

Interview by date

Complexity level scores

Mean complexity level

Mean zone

Julia Gillard (2010-2013)

Laurie Oakes, Weekend Today, 6/27/2010; Jon Faine, ABC 774, 6/29/2010; Deborah Cameron, ABC Sydney, 7/07/2010

1108, 1113, 1113

1111

Early systems thinking

Kevin Rudd (2013-2013)

Kerry O’Brien, ABC AM, 4/24/2008; Lyndal Curtis, ABC AM, 5/30/2008; Jon Faine, ABC 774 Brisbane, 6/06/2008

1133, 1138, 1129

1133

Early systems thinking

Tony Abbott (2013-2015)

Alison Carabine, ABC Radio National, 12/16/2013; Ray Hadley, 1/29/2014; Chris Uhlman, ABC AM, 9/26/2014

1133, 1129, 1117

1126

Early systems thinking

Malcolm Turnbull (2015-)

Michael Brissendon, ABC AM, 9/21/2015; Several journalists, 12/1/2015; Steve Austin, ABC Radio Brisbane, 1/17/2017

1133, 1138, 1113

1128

Early systems thinking

Comparison of U.S. and Australian results

There was less variation in the complexity scores of Australian prime ministers than in the complexity scores of U. S. presidents. Mean scores for the U. S. presidents ranged from 1054–1163 (109 points), whereas the range for Australian prime ministers was 1111–1133 (22 points). If we exclude President Trump as an extreme outlier, the mean score for U. S. Presidents was 12 points higher than for Australian prime ministers.

You may notice that the scores of two of the prime ministers who received a score of 1133 on their first interview, had dropped by the time of their third interview. This is reminiscent of the pattern we observed for President Obama.

The mean score for all four prime ministers was 14 points higher than the mean for sampled media. Interestingly, if we exclude President Trump as an extreme outlier, the difference between the average score received by U. S. presidents is almost identical at 13 points. Almost all of the difference between the mean scores of prime ministers and presidents (excluding President Trump) could be explained by media scores.

Country

Complexity score range

Complexity score difference

Leader average

Media average

Leader average – media average

USA

1054–1163

109

1116

1137 (without P. Trump

1124

-8

13

Australia

1111–1133

22

1125

1111

14

The sample sizes here are too small to support a statistical analysis, but once we have conducted our analyses of the British and Canadian prime ministers, we will be able to examine these trends statistically—and find out if they look like more than a coincidence.

Discussion

In the first article of this series, I discussed the importance of attempting to “hire” leaders whose complexity level scores are a good match for the complexity level of the issues they face in their roles. I then posed two questions:

  • When asked by prominent journalists to explain their positions on complex issues, what is the average complexity level of national leaders’ responses?
  • How does the complexity level of national leaders’ responses relate to the complexity of the issues they discuss?”

We now have a third question to add:

  • What is the relation between the complexity level of National Leaders’ interview responses and the complexity level of respected media?

So far, we have learned that when national leaders explain their positions on complex issues, they do not — with the possible exception of President Obama — demonstrate that they are capable of grasping the full complexity of these issues. On average, their explanations do not rise to the mean level demonstrated by executive leaders in Lectica’s database.

We have also learned that when national leaders explained their positions on complex issues to the press, their explanations were 13–14 points higher on the Lectical Scale than the average complexity level of sampled media articles. We will be following this possible trend in upcoming articles about the British and Canadian leaders.

Interestingly, the Lectical Scores of two prime ministers whose average scores were above the media average dropped closer to the media average in their third interviews. We observed the same pattern for President Obama. It’s too soon to declare this to be a trend, but we’ll be watching.

As noted in the article about the thinking of U. S. presidents, the world needs leaders who understand and can work with highly complex issues, and particularly in democracies, we also need leaders whose messages are accessible to the general public. Unfortunately, the drive toward accessibility seems to have led to a situation in which candidates are persuaded to simplify their messages, leaving voters with one less way to evaluate the competence of our future leaders. How are we to differentiate between candidates whose capacity to comprehend complex issues is only as complex as that of a mid-level manager and candidates who have a high capacity to comprehend and work with these issues but feel compelled to simplify their messages? And in a world in which people increasingly seem to believe that one opinion is as good as any other, how do we convince voters of the critical importance of complex thinking and the expertise it represents?


*The speeches of presidents are generally written to be accessible to a middle school audience. The metrics used to determine reading level are not measures of complexity level. They are measures of sentence, word length, and sometimes the commonness of words. For more on reading level see: How to interpret reading level scores.


 Other articles in this series

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