The Management Interview John Hinchcliff – Ethical management in action

With doctorate in philosophy and religion from an American university he headed New Zealand’s leading technical tertiary institution for 20 years. He taught ethics here and overseas, has been chaplain at the University of Auckland, peace movement activist, and Labour Party candidate and, more recently, member of the Business Roundtable-inspired Education Forum.
It is widely accepted that AUT owes far more to the vision and leadership skills of one man than is usually the case. In an era when tenure at the top of tertiary institutions is often short and troubled, John Hinchcliff has led the Auckland Technical Institute (ATI) to enhanced status as the Auckland Institute of Technology (AIT) and then on the long, bruising road to university status.
And he has done so quoting philosophers from Aristotle to Kant, Nietzsche and beyond, rather than roll projections and building plans. Moreover, John Hinchcliff has consciously developed leadership style with many elements other CEOs could study to their and their companies’ advantage.
AUT with its 25,000 students, 1500 staff and annual turnover of almost $200 million is big business in anybody’s terms, but ‘Dr John’, as he is affectionately known, has run the burgeoning organisation in his own, quite singular way.
Hinchcliff believes there is no simple solution to successful leadership or management of an organisation or company.
In his 1997 book Values Integrating Education he did not mince words about “those dreaded TLAs or ‘Three Letter Acronyms’ with which scholars, gurus and consultants have regaled us, seeking to earn their fame and fortune by cajoling us into swallowing their expensive elixir in return for the promise of managerial Nirvana”. It is long list including LRP, ZBB, TQM and MCI.
“These are all useful ideas in limited sense, but it’s been endemic through the western world that if you follow this or that formula you’ll succeed.” It’s based on the belief, Hinchcliff says, that you can follow clear and distinct ideas, in lineal progression to rational conclusions.
“But, of course, life in or out of an organisation isn’t like that,” he says. “The chaos theory is much closer to the mark: whenever you make decision there is cascading series of effects which can go in different directions and you can never be quite sure of outcomes.”
This necessitates flexibility of thinking, and an ability to make quick changes, that too few organisations are equipped to do. “Leadership is both complex and context-dependent, and the context in which business is conducted is constantly changing,” he says. “Chaos theory says that life is different and unusual and that people who are free to ride the next wave, the new tsunami, the new challenge that comes along will succeed best in the long run.” If CEO is strongly aligned to particular management approach and all your senior staff have the same mindset, like ducks in row, and the context changes slightly, as it’s bound to do, then there can be problems in coping with change.”
There is perception that strength is CEO virtue. The CEO who is strong, has all the answers, and can reduce everything to simple slogans has been an admired model. John Hinchcliff has different view:
“The more powerful you are as leader the more power you can give away.”
It is fundamental Hinchcliff belief that leadership involves an amalgam of skills that, by definition, it is almost impossible for any individual to exhibit with equal ability. Discuss leadership with John Hinchcliff and he ticks off four vital aspects: administrative ability, political flair, personal skills, and the philosophical dimension. “Administratively, there’s the need to operate efficiently, balance the books, approach everything logically; politically, it’s important to be able to advocate strongly outside for your organisation and retain cooperative spirit inside it while allocating scarce resources or making other potentially divisive decisions; personal skills range from enabling people to contribute to the best of their ability no matter where they are in the hierarchy to always responding on personal level; philosophically, it is important for the CEO to have vision for an organisation and the ability to get others to share in that sense of destiny, purpose and direction.”
Often the CEOs who try to do it all are those who fail most spectacularly.
“Each dimension requires specific expertise and no one person can possibly be good at all four,” says Hinchcliff. That is why delegation – done in the right way for the right reasons – is sign of CEO strength and sure-footedness rather than weakness. “Organisations and companies need to develop teams and need to balance them to make sure those four dimensions are covered,” says Hinchcliff. “This can sometimes mean working with someone you don’t particularly agree with or even like very much.”
Derek McCormack, who has succeeded Hinchcliff as AUT’s vice-chancellor, and worked closely with him for more than decade, sees the ability to delegate as one of his strongest managerial strengths. “John has been very strong delegator and supporter of colleagues who report to him. He long ago identified his own personal skill set and the areas where he was least effective,” says McCormack. “He’s plugged these areas with strong people and then given his colonels lot of authority to make their way.” Outsiders, and staff further down the line, have sometimes found it disconcerting that there was so much vigorous debate within AUT’s senior executive group. “It might have looked as if the leadership didn’t know what it was doing, but John’s never been afraid of debate or being on the wrong side of debate,” notes McCormack. “He’s instilled this idea at AUT that you need an internal variety of views to be sustainable and sufficiently adaptive to the future.”
But can this diversity of ideas, and willingness to listen to opposing views be ultimately self-defeating? “I agree that it’s fine line, but another of John’s great strengths has been as visionary leader, as someone who has had vision about how polytechnic might grow and change and has taken his colleagues, as he calls them, with him,” says Derek McCormack. “And that vision’s been strong enough to ultimately keep everyone aligned in the same direction.
Visionary leadership is not term often heard in New Zealand, but is regularly applied to John Hinchcliff. Wyn Hoadley, who has known him since university days at Canterbury, is currently AUT chancellor: “For number of years John had an unshakeable vision that AIT needed to be university, but one that honoured its ‘staircasing’ traditions, its concern for staff and students, and its inclusiveness.”
Hoadley also notes that by-product of high levels of delegation can be degree of aloofness. “But John has never fallen into that trap; he has attended hundreds of functions, was always available and, in turn, is genuinely loved and respected.”
Derek McCormack adds: “He hasn’t been the ‘secret CEO’. As well as an ‘open door’ policy for everyone he’s excellent at the personal things, like visiting staff in hospital and noticing achievements.”
‘Dr John’ was always little different from the norm. “What were considered rather eccentric ideas, with his interests in philosophy, religion, ethics and peace, were not exactly the milieu of the technical institute scene,” remembers Derek McCormack. “I can well remember him getting very short shrift at Technical Institutes Association Conference when he justified the change of the Auckland Technical Institute (ATI) to Auckland Institute of Technology (AIT) by references to the original Greek meanings of the words involved!” But perhaps the most telling aspect of this story is that all technical institutes are now institutes of technology. “All those years ago, John read the political and educational signs and began to make the subtle shifts that moved the organisation in the direction he felt it needed to go.”
“Ethics is

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