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Are Great Leaders Born or Made?

Presentation to Castlemaine State Festival Great Debate, Castlemaine, 26 March 2021

After a lifetime of working with political leaders at home, and watching them at close quarters abroad, I am quite convinced that whatever makes them distinctive is not something they learn through experience, or can ever be taught, but a set of characteristics they are born with. Things may be different for business or professional or cultural or sporting leaders, but when it comes to political leaders I would go so far to suggest that they are actually quite genetically peculiar.

Up to a point political leaders are no different from other politicians. It is a well attested fact that anyone who chooses any kind of political career, whether aspiring to leadership or not, must have certain psychological traits a little out of the ordinary. They include, as I am sure you will have noticed, an unnatural craving for attention; a tendency toward delusion when assessing their own popularity (and indeed whether anyone notices their existence at all); and a distorted sense of reality about the impact they are likely to have, during the course of their careers, when it comes to solving any significant problem anywhere.

But when it comes to those who seriously aspire to political leadership, actually attain it, and hold onto it for any significant time, those standard, run of the mill characteristics are compounded, to a whole new order of magnitude. What they all have is a degree of self-belief that defies all normal human inhibition. What is involved here, I believe, is definitely genetic – it is a missing sensitivity gene: which gives them the ability to stay unmoved by what people think and say about them that most normal mortals would regard, rightly, as pathological. For those who reach the highest political office, this omission is almost invariably of seriously clinical significance.

I am not suggesting, of course, that this is the only quality, innate or otherwise, that makes a political leader – and I’ll come to those others in a moment. But occasionally it does drown out everything else, totally defining – to the exclusion of anything else – that person’s time in office. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that even the most maniacally egocentric of our own Australian Prime Ministers have been in quite that category (though Billy McMahon arguably came close).

But we do have in the United States a living, breathing example in all too recent memory: Donald Trump’s profound ignorance about everything and lack of a moral compass about anything was exceeded throughout his term only by the precedent-defying scale of his narcissistic self-obsession. (None of which, I can’t forbear noting, stopped my successor Alexander Downer and the Murdoch press’s foreign policy genius Greg Sheridan both writing before the election that if they were American they would vote for him!)

Bad leaders can be bad in any number of different ways, usually for the reason that they lack one or more of the qualities of really good leaders. Those qualities I believe, though I can’t prove, are also overwhelmingly innate: for the most part, you are either born with them or not. So, apart from pathological levels of self-belief, what are these qualities? I’d list them as follows:

  • serious intellectual ability (though it doesn’t have to be genius-level: history has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of Walter Lippman’s observation a century ago that the supreme qualification for high office is temperament, not intellect);
  • demonstrably high-order judgment;
  • a clear sense of strategic direction;
  • communication skills, and the quality of empathy (not necessarily incompatible with self-confidence or self-belief) which, more than anything else, enables one to connect with, and persuade, others;
  • basic organisational and time management skills (not very evident in at least one of our prime ministers of recent memory, bur indispensable given the number of balls that every leader has to keep in the air simultaneously);
  • a work ethic well above the prevailing norm; and
  • unimpeachable personal integrity.

It’s of course possible that in the case of some leaders, the possession of at least some of these qualities may be more apparent that real, bearing in mind that, as Groucho Marx once said (and it could equally well have been Tony Blair), ‘The secret of success is sincerity: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made’.

But it’s hard to fully fake any of these attributes for any extended period. To hold down a political leadership position for any length of time requires all of them, and they have to be real. If you lack any one or more of them, your colleagues or the electorate will sooner or later find you out.

One of the most fascinating things about political leaders, both great and not so great, is the extent to which these qualities can co-exist with completely different political styles. The typology that those of us in the game most know and love is that first made famous by the British Labour MP, Tony Benn: between ‘straight men’, ‘fixers’ and ‘maddies’. The 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 in Australia both Bob Hawke and John Howard. Fixers are deal-makers who will do whatever it takes to hold on to power: think of Malcolm Turnbull, while he lasted, and now Scott Morrison. Maddies – the most interesting – are those who believe in big change and are prepared to blow up just about anything in their way.

Think Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and in Australia Gough Whitlam to an extent, but above all Paul Keating – who I once described to an American audience, in terms they could understand, as a cross between Franklin Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, Lenny Bruce and Mike Tyson. When Philip Adams once identified Keating on ABC radio as a classic maddie, he described Paul’s response as ‘almost purring’.

The point I leave you with is where I began. In my experience, it is not just the maddies who are slightly beyond the normal psychological pale, but everyone who actually achieves high political office. To get there, you have to be – and, I suspect, born that way.