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'Small Poppy' Syndrome

Collaboration and the Australian Leadership Style

Australians are super-sensitive to expressions of hubris. We have developed a cultural leadership style premised on the public expression of humility. Consequently we have some embedded communication skills we don’t recognise and could harness more effectively.

In an age where collaboration and engagement across sectors, industries and increasingly silos is more important than ever, what can we learn from Australian Leadership studies?

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Australians developed a unique cultural style that we can leverage more effectively in an age of collaboration. Like an accent (others have accents, we don’t), it’s a style other leadership cultures envy we don’t recognise we have. I call it the Small Poppy syndrome.

We all know of the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. The source of this cultural norm is probably ‘in-mateship’ in colonial chain-gangs: if one person on the chain stood out everyone was punished. As a corollary to this cultural twitch we’ve developed a leadership style that is, of necessity, humble. To be ‘the star’ performer generates resentment and resistance.

Australian Leaders have become masterful at leading from within the group. For many Australian leaders I work with this facility is second-nature and not usually identify as a unique skill. But it is!

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In other contexts and countries this ability is being identified as a capacity lacking in the leadership cohort. In Australia we have it in spades.

As with so many comparative advantages and abilities we have evolved in this country, we’re probably the only ones who don’t yet value it.

As with so many comparative advantages and abilities we have evolved in this country, we’re probably the only ones who don’t yet value it.

Addendum for Woman

After reading this piece I wrote above for Australian Leadership project, my wife declared my perspective uniquely male and that, there was another element that may resonate with women. Deborah is an ethical leadership coach ( and added:

For women the roles can be somewhat reversed. Most women who aspire to play leadership roles have to be willing to be the ‘Tall Poppy’ and take the hits. There is a lower threshold for ‘standing out’ for women than for men, taking a leadership role for a woman generally requires a thicker skin than it does for many men.


It is often how well we can take the hits that determines whether we are respected as a leader. This is appropriate. However, in male dominated sectors, being a woman means you do have to work harder, get better results and be willing to be paid less than your male counterparts if you want to climb the ladder of formal leadership

Sonny Neale is a Thought Leader, Trainer Adviser and Coach with 20 years' experience leading innovative projects in the government and not-for-profit sectors including as CEO for Australia's largest local government PEAK Sustainability Alliance.

Visit his website at for information about training and coaching for your teams.

Contact Sonny directly at:

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