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Political Leadership: What makes for success

Presentation at Academy of Social Sciences in Australia Leon Mann Leadership Forum, ANU House, Melbourne, 11 October 2019

Not only in Australia but right around the world’s democracies, the quality of political leadership is as low as I can ever remember it – ranging, with only a handful of exceptions, from the underwhelming to the desolate to the appalling. Just about everywhere one looks, at least one – and often many more than one – of what I would regard as the essential attributes of responsive and effective political leadership have just gone missing.

In many ways this is not surprising. Politics has always been a bloody and dangerous trade, and it has become significantly more so in an age of instant communication, relentless 24/7 news cycles, social media and dramatically reduced personal privacy. And more exposed than anyone else in politics are those who aspire to leadership positions – as Francis Bacon put it four centuries ago, “He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars”.

To both aspire to and acquire political leadership has always required a degree of self-belief that defies normal human inhibition. But what seems to be required nowadays is a completely missing sensitivity gene: an ability to stay unmoved by what people think and say about one that most normal mortals would regard, rightly, as pathological.

Despite the personal risks involved there never seems to be a shortage of candidates for these positions. So what are the attributes, self-belief apart, we should reasonably look for in choosing between them? Based on nothing more formal than my own direct observations of both Australian and foreign leaders over several decades, I will offer in a moment my own list, in no particular order, of what I think are the main attributes of successful leaders.

As to what I have in mind by ‘success’, I think it comes down to a combination of electoral longevity, perceived effectiveness in responding to forces of domestic and international change, perceived competence in avoiding or navigating catastrophe, and achievement of a significant degree of respect – if not affection – from one’s political opponents.

Mostly subjective criteria, true, but I think leadership quality for most of us is like US Justice Potter Stewart’s famous threshold test for obscenity: “I know it when I see it”. It’s intriguing in that respect just how much unanimity there tends to be across ideological lines – at least after the passage of time – in scholarly rankings of the best and worst American Presidents and, although this is a less popular sport, Westminster system Prime Ministers.

How we judge leaders’ success is necessarily very context dependent, with great variations in the scale and degree of difficulty of the challenges they may face, particularly economic and security challenges, and in the realistic availability of opportunities they have to make a difference. As to challenges, wartime and international economic catastrophes are famous makers or breakers of leaders, but when their achievement is primarily preventive they don’t always get the recognition they deserve: Kevin Rudd’s leadership balance sheet would be much stronger if he received full credit for leading not only the Australian, but in many ways the global response to the Global Financial Crisis, ensuring that its impact was nothing like as severe as it could have been.

As to opportunities, to take my own area of international relations, while I am highly critical of a number of positions the Morrison Government has been taking I do acknowledge that opportunities for the kind of highly adventurous and effective international coalition building in which the Hawke and Keating Governments engaged are very much more limited in the present international environment than they were in the immediate post-Cold War years, when as I described it in my recent memoir, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be Foreign Minister was very heaven’.

That said about opportunity, I think we also have to acknowledge that some of the leaders we most admire are those who, when faced with a very hostile or unyielding political environment, nonetheless – by sheer skill and perseverance – created their own opportunities to make a difference. I’m thinking particularly in this respect – because I’ve just been reading Angela Woollacott’s excellent new biography – of the extraordinary 1970s renaissance of South Australia under Don Dunstan.

So to my personal checklist of the ten leadership attributes that I think really matter:

First, serious intellectual ability should go without saying, even if there are an army of electors in the US and elsewhere currently in denial. But it is important to note that while intellectual firepower may be a necessary condition for effective and widely respected leadership (Ronald Reagan being the only exception I can readily think of), this is by no means a sufficient condition. History has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of the observation attributed to Walter Lippman nearly a century ago that the supreme qualification for high office is not so much intellect as temperament.

Second, empathy: the ability to connect, to understand where others are coming from (though not necessarily to sympathise with their positions) and to see how they are seeing you, is probably the important temperamental attribute a leader could have. Not least because a lack of empathy is often what lies behind poor judgment about people and situations, administrative dysfunctionality and poor communication skills – which goes to the next three attributes on my list.

Sound judgement is obviously indispensable, although making the right call is often much easier with hindsight than in the heat of the moment. It’s a matter of acting, and being seen to act, in a way which weighs the available evidence, listens to competing arguments, knows who is most worth listening to, is measured rather than impulsive, and learns from experience and the mistakes that inevitably will be made. None of this means avoiding all risks – that way lies total inertia – but it does mean calculating those that are taken.

Basic organisational and time management skills are much more important than is usually recognised, given the number of the balls that every leader has to keep in the air simultaneously, the number of advisers and supplicants pressing for access, and the necessity to constantly prioritise and re-prioritise activity. Leaders who lack those skills, and don’t compensate by accepting the discipline of those around them who do have them, are ones who (as Kevin Rudd found despite his stellar intellect and other attributes) quickly wear out their welcome with colleagues and other stakeholders.

Communication skills, the ability to connect and persuade– in the parliament, in the media, on the election hustings, in internal party forums, with potential financial supporters – are self-evidently critical. Paul Keating has been the supreme Australian exemplar of those skills in recent times, across multiple forums. Others have been stronger in some forums than others – Bob Hawke was surprisingly unpersuasive in Parliament – but no successful leader I can think of anywhere has lacked them entirely.

The sixth attribute on my list is a clear sense of strategic direction, combined with the ability to craft and communicate a clear narrative of what the government is trying to achieve overall. This has not been a universally evident characteristic of successful leaders – some have got by just bobbing along with the waves, with their grandest aspiration being to make the country feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’. But it has certainly characterised the very best of them, perhaps nowhere more obviously than Hawke and Keating, with their very sophisticated narrative – crafted early in the life of their Labor Government (with much help from Bill Kelty and the ACTU) and sustained over thirteen years – built around the themes of very dry, productivity and competitiveness-focused economic policy; very warm, moist and highly compensatory social policy, built around the concept of the ‘social wage’; and strongly liberal internationalist (both globalist and patriotic!) foreign policy.

Seventh, unimpeachable personal integrity is hard to argue against. It is not necessary for a good political leader to be a paragon of every domestic virtue, as Bob Hawke amply demonstrated, though the times are clearly becoming more demanding in that respect. But being, and being seen to be, personally honest and incorruptible is a universally accepted baseline.

Eighth, I would be inclined to add to the list of necessary leadership attributes a work ethic – and associated physical stamina – well above the prevailing norm, Some highly effective leaders have spent less time visibly grinding away at their desks than others – with Paul Keating famously a much later starter and often earlier finisher than Bob Hawke, who maintained almost monastic discipline during his years in office, (and Ronald Reagan, again, not being known to trouble his desk much at all). But it’s hard to identify a successful leader whose capacity or willingness to be fully briefed and informed across the whole range of their responsibilities has been of Trumpian or Johnsonian proportions.

Ninth, an often under-recognised component of political effectiveness is simply resilience – the ability to recover ground after the defeats, set-backs and outright humiliations which are, except in fairy-tales, part of every politician’s and political leader’s experience. Those who survive for the long haul are those who bounce back.

The final item on my top-ten list is what I would describe simply as ‘spark’ – the capacity, through sheer force of personality, to ignite enthusiasm, and on occasion real excitement, in one’s colleagues and the wider community. Dunstan, Whitlam, Keating, Hawke, Thatcher, Blair, Clinton, Obama all had – at least at their peak – that infectious quality. It’s not a sufficient requirement for successful leadership overall – that requires ticking a lot of my other boxes as well – but it’s certainly a mark of distinction, separating run of the mill leaders from those whose reputations grow and last.

To some extent, tbough not completely, what I have in mind by ‘spark’ overlaps with Tony Benn MP’s third category of political leadership styles, when he famously distinguished between ‘straight men’, ‘fixers’ and ‘maddies’. His categories don’t correlate with moral rectitude, or effective actual performance, but just describe the general way in which leaders approach the challenges and opportunities of their office. Straights are reasonably-grounded incrementalists: think most leaders, in most countries, most of the time, including Bob Hawke in Australia. Fixers are deal-makers who will do whatever it takes to hold on to power: Maddies – the most interesting – are those who believe in big change and are willing to contemplate blowing up just about anything in their way. Think Paul Keating, who was reported by Philip Adams as ‘almost purring’ after Adams once described him as such on ABC radio.

There are other candidates for this checklist, one of them arguably – particularly after the last Australian federal election – being ‘likeability’. But while this does obviously matter when focusing on electability, I am not sure that it is all that crucial when it comes to the long-term assessment of leadership success. While I wouldn’t go all the way with Machiavelli – that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved – there is a lot to be said for respect ultimately mattering more than affection. (And although a well-developed sense of humour may certainly contributes to likeability, my own experience suggests that the capacity to recognise and appreciate irony is not quite the great Australian trait we like to think it is, and that, as Gough Whitlam for one found to his cost, self-deprecatory humour in particular is seriously dangerous.).

Of the ten boxes I have described, not many political leaders would tick every one of them all of the time. But in my judgement, for what it’s worth, they are the attributes that really matter. Most of them I fear are essentially innate – you either have them or you don’t – rather than capable of being easily learned, in preparation for or on the job. But if many more of our leaders, both at home and abroad, came closer to consistently displaying all those attributes than is the case at the moment, the world would be a lot safer, saner and happier than it presently is.