Leadership: Memorable leadership?

We might, or maybe not, soon witness some inspired, intelligent and thoughtful leadership. The time is right and the need for it is unquestionably great. The question, however, is whether the leader is up to the job.
The man in question is the nation’s chief executive. John Key is at the defining point in his career – at least in his political career. The decisions he is now either making or endorsing will determine his place in the history of this country’s political leadership.
His decisions and leadership skills will also, however, in large measure determine whether or not New Zealand will enjoy the kind of good economic fortune the HSBC Bank thinks awaits us.
According to the bank’s report entitled “The World in 2050” and released last month, New Zealand will be in good economic shape 38 years from now. We will, apparently, have one of the developed world’s highest annual growth rates at around three percent, though we will still struggle with being small.
Investment in education, tools and technology will deliver our enhanced performance and growth-focused economy. We should be less indebted too.
Paul Bloxham, HSBC chief economist for New Zealand, attributed the prospect of our good fortune to the burgeoning middle classes in emerging markets. “Demand for commodities will rocket suggesting that New Zealand is well placed to take advantage of the growth in the world’s fastest growing market in Asia and Latin America,” he said.
That all makes some economic sense but poor leadership can thwart the most promising of circumstances. The most extreme example of that must be Zimbabwe. Once Africa’s bread basket and richest nation, it is now that continent’s beggar. Leadership is invariably all, when it comes to realising on promise and potential.
Will John Key rise to the occasion and lead, not just competently but inspirationally? Does he look like leader determined to deliver us the promised land?
The measure of Key’s leadership will depend on his ability to resist the aphrodisiac of political power, and think and act outside the constraints of his, and his party colleagues’, defining ideologies. Does he even want to be great leader? Is he in the job for the same reason many clamour to occupy the top slot – for self gratification and the slaking of an ego? Presumably he’s not in it for the money. That may be plus but not necessarily.
Key’s ego is overt. And generally, inflated egos and political leadership are constant companions. More relevant is whether or not he has vision for New Zealand. If he has, he has steadfastly refused to share it. That’s usually bad sign but, again, it’s prevalent in political leaders.
Key’s disinclination to share his vision suggests lack of willingness to commit and reluctance to be honest about future intentions. That in turn suggests leadership approach based on knowing what’s best, and believing that what’s best is not for sharing.
That’s strange, because principled and well-articulated visions generally stand up to scrutiny. And great visions are worth defending. The best leaders even use them to inspire people to help realise the dream.
These are complicated times. The issues confronting nations like ours are complex. Great leaders have the capacity to distil and explain issues, and to take the team with them. Key seems to have strong personal following. He could probably sell his vision if he had one and if he believed it was truly worth pursuing. The fact that he doesn’t suggests leadership strategy based more on expedience than inspiration.
Watching leaders in action delivers invaluable lessons – both good and bad. To successfully tackle the difficult economic and social issues confronting New Zealand will require some outstanding leadership. Without it, all the promise suggested by the HSBC report will likely come to very little.
Hopefully, John Key will use his second term to deliver lesson we can all learn from. Hopefully, he wants the generation of leaders and followers contemplating their circumstances in 2050, including his kids, to remember him fondly. If he’s not so inclined, the next three years will be best forgotten, even before we enjoy them.

Reg Birchfield is writer on leadership, governance & management. [email protected]

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