Bookcase : A Perfect Gentleman: The Sir Wilson Whineray Story

• By Bob Howitt
• HarperCollins
• RRP $49.99

For rugby-loving readers the Sir Wilson Whineray story will no doubt please. For readers seeking some insights into this undoubtedly great New Zealander’s business leadership skills and philosophies, it is rather more disappointing.
As the author says in his Note, his subject is “suspicious” of the media, and spent his life avoiding controversy and confrontation. Howitt concludes that Whineray’s approach to life and leadership is, as the title suggests, “gentlemanly”. He is man for whom the word ‘diplomatic’ might have been invented.
How can such diplomat and non-confrontational individual become such successful business leader? Having watched Sir Wilson’s career – both sporting and commercial – his effective invisibility and absence from anything remotely controversial has intrigued me. I am still intrigued.
Howitt provides some glimpses of the man’s approach and thoughts on leadership. They are, however, few and far from illuminating. Whineray’s great strength was and is, he suggests, “his ability to get on with people and relate to them”. But he quotes Whineray telling his good friend, similarly high-achieving All Black and former Auckland Grammar headmaster, John Graham, that, when it came to aspiring to be captain “only few seek leadership, because it is something that can impact seriously on performance”.
Sir Wilson was, as Howitt admits, “reluctant subject”. His disinclination to speak out was reinforced by advice from fellow Knight and former Lions’ winger turned multi-millionaire and media magnate, Sir Anthony O’Reilly. And, if he needed more evidence of the value of circumspection, the adverse reaction generated by former All Black half back, Chris Laidlaw’s outspoken book, provided it.
The book is chronicle of many Sir Wilson’s sporting achievements but rather less of his business ones.
Perhaps I was looking for too much from this book. If so, that is the fault of the publicists who touted: “Only rarely do individuals of Sir Wilson’s quality come along.” That’s true. But then they promised: “it’s equally rare to get the story behind such remarkable achiever”. I’m not sure we did. The book does, however, provide some insight into what it takes to be seen as one of “New Zealand’s finest all-round gentlemen”. And that alone makes reading worth the effort. Reg Birchfield

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