Leadership How They Compare Our political and business leaders

It seems to me, after studying New Zealand’s 37 premiers and prime ministers for Public Lives, that in politics and business, individuals often become party leaders or CEOs with very few of the generally recognised leadership skills or qualities. Two recognised authorities, James McGregor Burns and John P Kotter, have both written on the subject and from their work it is possible to draw some parallels between political and business leadership.
Burns, in his book Leadership, draws clear distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘transactional’ leadership. ‘Moral’ leadership is motivated by the desire to inspire and lead change. ‘Transactional’ leadership is about guarding or managing the status quo. Kotter, in his ground-breaking 1990 Harvard Business Review article, ‘What Leaders Really Do’, makes the point, more widely accepted now, that leadership is different from management, and that it is the role of leaders to prepare organisations for change and help them through the often difficult process. “Management,” Kotter says, “is about coping with complexity.”
From the beginning, New Zealand premiers were “coping with complexity”. The complexity of the mid-19th century might seem straightforward today, but it was real enough then: isolated communities without linking infrastructure or certainty of economic survival, and with decision making awkwardly split between central and provincial governments, governor and the Colonial Office 12,000 miles away. It was the story of settlers risking everything to make better life for themselves at the other end of the earth. The leap of faith was coming here in the first place.
About third of New Zealand’s early political leaders, premiers, led Parliament before political parties were established and were often the briefly serving public faces of shifting alliances of small group of politicians who were constantly shuffling national, regional and, sometimes, personal interests. Without too much pushing and shoving, New Zealand’s political leaders can be categorised as ‘moral’ or ‘transactional’ and number were, in Kotter’s terms, managers rather than leaders.
What has been expected of the country’s political leaders is making sure the original vision – articulated by few like Edward Gibbon Wakefield but motivating thousands – came true. Consequently most New Zealand premiers and prime ministers – battling to break in the country and then guarantee standard of living – have been transactional leaders, maintaining the status quo or aiming at incremental improvements within well-defined parameters.
There has not been much demand, or opportunity, for Burns’ ‘moral’ leadership, the ‘visionary’ leadership that is generally associated with great political and business leaders. Gerald Hensley, who worked for 10 prime ministers in various capacities, said: “Our history, with long periods of ‘steady as she goes’ and short fairly frenetic bursts of reform – in the 1890s, 1935-38 and 1984-87 – after which we sink back into tranquility, doesn’t provide lot of scope for greatness.”
There were 23 prime ministers during the 20th century, now leaders of their parties as well as the country, most of them also in the ‘transactional’ mould. Robert Muldoon has been pilloried for saying he wanted to leave the country no worse than he found it, but it might just as easily have been the catch-cry of many of his predecessors.
Two often-used words in the business leadership literature are ‘visionary’ and ‘inspirational’. While few business leaders may actually earn these epithets, they are words rarely used in the political world. The most successful leaders inspire others to follow. In companies they excite and enthuse staff and keep customers satisfied; in politics they motivate their caucus and party and convince the country they should be sitting on the treasury benches.
The list of visionary or inspirational political leaders is short: From the 19th century, Frederick Weld promoted New Zealand’s ‘self reliance’ at time when it was risky and economically fraught concept; Julius Vogel’s development plans – large scale immigration and public works schemes that dwarfed the ‘Think Big’ projects of the 1980s – were clearly visionary, but also the sort of economic jolt the country needed. Richard John Seddon dreamed of South Pacific ‘empire’. William Massey’s goal of becoming Britain’s outlying farm came closer to reality. Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser and Walter Nash saw their vision – big government solution to transforming lives – come true. Norman Kirk and David Lange inspired the public with their hopes for New Zealand society but failed to galvanise their colleagues to the same degree. During the second half of the 20th century, whether you like what he did or not, Roger Douglas was, from the relative anonymity of the finance portfolio, New Zealand’s most visionary political leader. More recently again, Jim Bolger had an interest in looking beyond the immediate to debate issues like republicanism and the importance of ‘social capital’, applying the Robert Putman concept to local circumstances in series of speeches that failed to engage his fellow New Zealanders.
The ability to communicate effectively, to sell the message is an important weapon in political or business leader’s armoury. Michael Bassett, who combines the skills of an historian and the experience of well-blooded politician, has written about the essential prime ministerial qualities and he notes the crucial importance of effective communications, particularly in the TV-era. Since the 1960s, with the merciless electronic eye of the new medium beamed into the nation’s living rooms, it has become imperative to be succinct, clear, simple and preferably memorable. Television magnifies mannerisms and uncertainty into shiftiness and incompetence. As Bassett has written: “The new medium played into the hands of the young, the smart and the telegenic.”
The ability to appear credible on TV may be major factor for only small number of business leaders, but the other qualities Bassett has identified as important to success in the political arena during the 20th century apply to business leadership as well. He wrote: “The need for robust health, high energy levels, good temperament, intelligence, willingness to take the right, as opposed to political decision, and modicum of luck, have been constants throughout the century.”
Today, both politics and business are more complex. Political and business leaders have to deal with wave upon wave of difficult, interlocking issues complicated by an environment in which ‘instant’ communications and response and ‘constant change’ mentality have become the norm.
Current prime minister Helen Clark, already highly rated by political scientists and press pundits, is an effective transactional leader, strongly project-orientated and more comfortable as manager than visionary leader. As political commentator Colin James wrote late last year: “Clark cannot paint picture of her promised land. If this nation is on journey with Clark, it is one marked whistle-stop by whistle-stop, not mapped in grand vistas.”
But in our speeded-up world, companies and governments need mixture of talents. The most successful companies have combination of skills at the helm: leaders alive to the need for change and re-invention and managers who promote stability, budgeting and organising skills and problem-solving ability.
Successful governments have, more by accident than design, paired the more visionary leaders with deputies who are good at the detail. Peter Fraser, generally considered the country’s most impressive leader, had Walker Nash as his numbers man; Norman Kirk’s deputy, Bill Rowling, was an efficient manager; David Lange’s No 2, Geoffrey Palmer, was the perfect person to maintain discipline and order during the frenetic 1984-87 period.
Early in the 21st century New Zealand society is at crossroads. There are issues – like the foreshore and seabed

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