Notes on Julia Gillard’s performance in the area of communication


Three years and four days ago, Australia woke to discover there had been a political coup overnight. The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, had been replaced by his deputy, Julia Gillard, and we had Australia’s first female Prime Minister.

Last night, the coup was reversed. Julia Gillard is out, and her predecessor is back in the position of Prime Minister.

I want to make some notes on Ms Gillard’s performance in the area of communication which may be of interest to readers in Australia and elsewhere too.

I’m not commenting on the rightness, wrongness or fairness of her time in office, how she came to office or how the period of office ended. I’m also not commenting on the role of her gender or how her performance compares to another’s performance.

I’m commenting because her performance in the area of communication illustrates some points which interest me personally and professionally.

Context for my comments

This is the context for my comments:

  • a country, an organisation, a family, is a network of conversations; the quality of those conversations determines who the country, the organisation, the family is. Said another way, it is a serious error to think of communication as a kind of “add-on”. The world literally arises in language
  • when I’m speaking about “what’s missing”, I’m not speaking about right or wrong. I’m speaking about what would provide a higher level of performance. I’m speaking about “what’s missing” in the same way an elite athlete might look for what was missing in their last game so they can work on raising their performance in the next game
  • it is performance that gives results; change performance and you change results
  • I’m working with a couple of executive coaching firms and providing leadership coaching myself to a corporate client, and the following comments are what I would offer if she were my client.

What’s missing?

This is what occurs to me as missing from the conversations Ms Gillard has been creating with the Australian people.

The collective pronoun

Ms Gillard uses the “I” pronoun as her default. When she does use the collective pronoun “we”, she uses it to refer to the Australian Labor Party or “my Government”. When she attempted an alternate collective formulation such as “working families”, it wasn’t collective enough.

Tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough …

So often we were told, by Ms Gillard herself and those around her, that she is “tough”. This was held up as if it were her strongest claim to leading Australia. It never seems to have occurred that the only response one could make to this is

Yes … and?

She failed to create what being tough makes available in the world. She was like a novice copywriter listing all the features of a new product instead of the benefits one could enjoy if one bought it.

Why opportunity?

She did something similar with the word “opportunity” which, when she was discussing education reforms, was the closest she ever got to creating, in language, a future for our country. Again, “Why opportunity?” I wanted to ask her.

What does “opportunity” make available?

More about “tough”

Back to this word “tough”. It doesn’t work as an advantage. Here’s why:

  • it is not an unequivocally positive attribute; some people hear “tough” and squirm recalling a school bully
  • people can clearly hear that such a word arises from an absence, a scarcity, a wrongness; one only offers the word tough if one is defending oneself against an imagined charge. It’s a preemptive strike designed to try and cover up a perceived deficit of some kind
  • it is exponentially different to the big words such as generosity, courage, integrity, love, joy, responsibility and so on. These type of words are what can be called “generative” language.

Generative language

Generative language is the most serious aspect missing from Ms Gillard’s performance in the area of communication.

Generative language is language the very uttering of which generates or brings forth something into the world. It presences the realm of generosity, the realm of courage, the realm of integrity and so on. Generative language differs from descriptive language. Adjectives such as “tough” merely describe; they do not presence, do not generate.

Generative language doesn’t arise from an absence, from a perceived deficit of some kind. It arises out of the void. It is created, declared into being. Like the marriage declaration. Someone speaks, “I now declare you man and wife …” and thus the union is declared into being.

Generative language is “future-based language” and has

the power to create new futures, to craft vision and to eliminate the blinders that are preventing people from seeing possibilities. It doesn’t describe how a situation occurs; it transforms how it occurs. It does this by rewriting the future.

It is essential for a leader to use generative language so people are called into a future that excites, moves and inspires them. This, alas, is what Ms Gillard has been missing in her conversations with the Australian people.


* The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organisation and Your Life by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan

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15 thoughts on “Notes on Julia Gillard’s performance in the area of communication

  1. Yes, that might be true. She wasn’t the best in communicating her messages. Even so, her success in having (finally) tackled education and NDIS with many other passed legislation will probably compare her with one of the greatest PM’s Australia has even had.
    It is no wonder our conversational/ language skills are not the best with having a mono language education system. This puts most of us at a disadvantage.
    I feel Gillard was disposed because of our Westminster adversarial system, ( which uses the ball and chain method to unhinge anyone aspiring to progress into a future) rather than a lack of generative language use.
    Of course, R.Murdoch and the Bolts of this world nudged this along as well.


    • I’ve taken care to outline what the post is about and what it’s not about. It’s my observations about an aspect of performance. It’s not about the rightness, wrongness or fairness of her time in office, or inferring or attributing reasons, causes or effects. I have nothing to say about the latter. There’s been far too much of it for years, I’m bored stupid by it and it’s the antithesis of the generative use of language.

      I think it’d be fabulous if multiple languages were taught in our schools by default. That would enrich our language use. What I’d like even better is for people to be taught to use the language they already have with power, intention, joy and precision. It’s easy to do and the effects are dramatic.


      • Yes, while I agree that use of language is important in effective communication, I feel that the example in Julia Gillard’s lack of use of language is somewhat unfair. Her speech on sexism and misogyny was hailed by many, including the New Yorker, The Sud Deutsche Zeitung, The Guardian, Le Monde and others as an international sensation. The world gave a standing ovation for her fifteen minutes speech. No female in Australia’s history has ever come closer to so succinctly and precisely sum up the curse of sexism and misogyny.
        I would have thought Mr.T Abbott as an example of poor language skills closer to the mark.


  2. Gerard makes a valid point about how the complexities behind the rise and fall of political leaders. BUT . . . politics aside, this post is beautiful, elegant and generative and a good lesson for all of us.


  3. My idea of a Utopia would be no politics and no Government. Go back to yeomen and roof thatchers, jesters and clowns deciding issues with a fair exchange of goods for labour, a bartering of goods for books with wheel barrows or axes and with families around the communal fire or water-well. Poetry reading on Friday conversationally aided by the lubricant of a home brew or strong coffee with snacks of calamari soaked in butter milk with some pepper. There will be discourse on the weeks’ comings with fireworks and building giant slippery dips contemplated with dancing and hop scotching by all. Hurts would be heeled and soothed made better with hugs and kisses. Almonds, char-grilled and coated with chocolate would be currency and goats would give us cheese and much joyful bleating. Barking dogs and purring cats bouncing at the feet of leaping children, skipping using flaxen ropes and slapping rounded twiggy hoops round and around.


  4. Great article! It brings back memories of a partner I had for many years, He had that infamously bad “I” syndrome habit, as in I can do this, and I can do that, when in fact all that was ever done was always by our team’s creative efforts and execution that made it all happen. No matter how often I’d remind this highly talented person of this weak “I” approach as oppose to the “we” as a team strength of abilities and effectiveness, his “I” habit was too deeply routed in his insecurities to allow himself to change. Jean-Jacques


    • Yes, the “I” doesn’t work in a person being a leader, except where he or she is being responsible for something failing.

      I really like what Seth Godin says about making change, “Don’t demand authority. Eagerly take responsibility. Relentlessly give credit.”


  5. A very interesting post. Your analysis could apply to the speeches of many politicians around the world, as well as to the world of advertising. We do need to hear how we might benefit from a new product (or a new leader) before we feel the need to buy (or vote).


  6. I told Gerard in his Utopia piece that nothing is perfect –except maybe you and me and sometimes I worry about you! ha ha. (My grandma used to tell me that, and I like to pop it in now and then.) Seriously, calamari coffee sounds awful! We have all those wild political sortees here too. It never matters which side is in they’re’ all like kids in the sandbox.


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