The Captain’s Pick – Where consensus and consultation go to die, but is that a bad thing?

Cpatains Pick

The concept of The Captain’s Pick (CP) has been thrown around a lot recently in the media, and this blog is going to be a quick look at what that actually means, and whether it’s a good idea as a leader to make one or not.

For the uninitiated, the Captain’s Pick (yet another sporting term stolen by politicians in a sports mad country: Shirtfronting, Down to the wire, Heavy hitter etc.) refers to a decision made, or to the selection of a candidate by a Party Leader without consultation with colleagues, the electorate or due political process (as appropriate). The most recent example of its use in politics has been Tony Abbot’s award of an Australian Knighthood to Prince Phillip – a man who is neither short of a few titles, or an Australian – without even mentioning it in passing to his cabinet, leading to ‘some’ dissenting voices.

With the exception of Dominic Knight literally everybody is giving the PM a hard time over it, and not just the ones you’d expect (Andrew Bolt and Rupert Murdoch both got involved). Of course, this isn’t the first time the CP has been thrown about by a sitting Prime Minister – Julia Gillard famously preferred Nova Peris over Trish Crossin in 2013 and got about as positive reaction as Tony has this time. When Kevin Rudd took over for the home stretch of the election campaign, he wasted no time in invoking the CP when choosing Peter Beattie for Forde.

Leaving aside the individual merits of either of the CP above because there are plenty of people debating them for us, is the concept of the CP such a bad one? Is it “an inherently weak Prime Minister’s way of trying to assert an authority that he no longer has” (Tim Dunlop), or indicative of a leader who “is prepared to kick arse all the way to the next election” (Gabrielle Chan)? Does it make a difference whether you are a Prime Minister, CEO or an actual sporting captain?

Is a Captain's Pick a sign of strength or weakness?
Is a Captain’s Pick a sign of strength or weakness?

On the one hand, you could argue that it’s leadership by position, rather than deed – by making the CP, you’re essentially saying “no-one is going to reject my decision because I’m the boss” – it’s about perceived strength. Or is it about weakness? Maybe it’s more a case of “I really want to do this, but I’m afraid that I’ll get shot down so I’m just going to do it without telling anyone”.

On the other hand, don’t we choose our leaders partly because we want them to make decisions? By electing someone as PM, playing under a captain or working for the boss aren’t we saying “I trust you do make the right choices”? Imagine if Michael Clarke had to consult with all his teammates before he changed the field positions?

I think that’s the point – Michael Clarke does have the authority to make and enforce decisions based solely on his own judgement because the decisions he makes have to be made quickly and in the midst of a match. He is genuinely a captain, and no matter how much you love cricket, his choices are unlikely to affect that many people in a significant way. Whereas not only do Tony Abbot’s choices have a rather wider impact, but presumably the PM wasn’t under any pressure to Knight Prince Phillip. It’s unlikely he walked into his office on Australia Day and suddenly realised he had to Knight someone, Phillip being the first person that came to mind (although it might seem like that’s exactly what happened). Abbot had the time to think, consult with colleagues, judge public opinion. He could still have made the same decision, but at least then he would have had some back up. As it is, his party and strongest supporters have openly criticised him – it could end up being the single most damaging decision of his term in office, but it wasn’t the decision itself that was so bad (stranger people than Prince Phillip have been given honours) it was the fact that Abbot immediately owned it, totally – he turned himself into a figure of ridicule.

The problem with unilateral decisions is that you’re the one who has to wear it if they go wrong, so you’ve either got to be pretty confident it won’t or desperate. Gillard’s selection of Nova Peris had some pretty clear potential upsides electorally and so it can be argued that the pick was a risk worth taking. The main issue I have with Tony Abbot’s pick is that I can’t imagine what he thought was the best case scenario – there was never likely to be celebrations in the street at further recognition of an old man who has spent his life doing good things because his wife’s vast wealth means he can, so at best Abbot could have expected a national disinterested shrug.

Always weigh up the upsides and downsides of your CP!
Always weigh up the upsides and downsides of your CP!

A business leader who makes a CP in giving a high-ranking job to a friend or family member instead of going through a recruitment process generally does it in the reasonable expectation that they have the skills necessary to do the job well. If it turns out they don’t, the leader is probably going to lose their job. The football coach who consistently selects his son or daughter in the team has to be pretty confident that they are better than other players they could have chosen. If not, they’re going to lose the respect of the team and probably, ultimately, their job as a result when they turn against him. Both types of CP are justifiable on the assumption that they will bring about a positive result, and if not, the ‘Captain’ takes the hit (one more sporting idiom for you).

By making a Captain’s Pick that is so clearly full of downside Abbot has to be prepared to take the consequences. This is not the biggest or worst decision he has ever made, in fact it wasn’t a decision he particularly needed to make at all but it could prove the most costly – when even your most rabid supporters start to doubt (in private and in public) your judgement it’s difficult to get it back. A leader cannot lead if no-one is following, so what do you do if your Captain’s Pick turns out to be the wrong one?

What do you think about Captain’s Picks?

As a leader, have you ever made a decision you later regretted? What were the consequences, and how did you resolve the situation?

– Luke’s%20pick.pdf