POLITICS : What style is our leader?

As the world changes, so do politicians’ leadership styles. It’s not business as usual.
After every big technology-induced economic boom and crash, things are done differently. After the “great financial crash”, politics, like business, requires different sort of leader and different sort of leadership.
This is only partly because governments think they need to re-regulate those who caused the crash. It is also only partly because most governments in the rich world have mountains of debt and huge budget deficits to defray.
There’s critical shift to which political leaders will need to respond – the different structure of business driven by digital technology. Rote neo-Keynesian or neo-liberal doctrine will miss that point.
The digital revolution changed forever the globalisation of finance, production and markets (along with information, people and ideas). This in turn has been helping the tectonic global economic and political rebalancing that goes with Asia’s rise.
It will be some time before the global political-economy settles into relatively predictable new pattern – as, for example, happened for four decades after the second world war, before digital technology started really to change economies and societies.
The opportunities in science, new technology and goods and services in the fast-enriching economies come with the complication for us of having to learn how to operate in unfamiliar cultures, notably Chinese and Indian. The true leaders in business here over the next 20 years will be those who can make this transition.
The same goes for politics.
Helen Clark was Eurocentric. She did the free trade deal with China and recognised Asia’s rising and future importance. But she was more at home in Europe and with Spanish-speaking Latin America. Teaching of Asian and Chinese studies and language languished at the very time when future-oriented leader would drive an urgent shift of focus in schools and universities.
Clark was “consolidating” prime minister in the three-way classification Victoria University political leadership specialist Jon Johansson uses. She settled the country down after the 1980s-90s’ radical shifts to neo-liberal economics and bicultural social policy. Put another way, she was transactional manager.
John Key, in Johansson’s model, is “preparatory”. He is tail-ender of the baby-boomer generation of which Clark was standard-bearer. That delineates him as transitional leader from that generation to the generation-Xers coming up.
The third Johansson leadership classification is “achievement”. You might also call that transformational. Sir Roger Douglas, with David Lange as his translator and presenter to public that was alternately mesmerised and stunned, was such leader.
The challenge for the generation-X leaders waiting in the party ranks will be to lead the sort of policy transformation that will fit New Zealand economically, socially and politically into the 2010s-20s digital and geopolitically rebalanced world.
Key has shown little sign he can morph into that role. He is pragmatic and cautious and closely watches polls (which point backwards). He suits managerial government aimed at maintaining majority in society of vote-drifters. If he is preparing us for something different, as distinct from soothing us before future leader’s ‘something different’, it is not obvious yet.
Key has decentralised style of cabinet management in which good ministers do well and less competent ones muck up. His take on China and the global rebalancing amounts to little more than trade, trade, trade. He is miserly and unadventurous with research funds. He has not pushed officials, researchers, business and policy wonks to see whether “clean-tech” or “green growth” will be big in the post-crash economy and, if so, how New Zealand fits.
Instead, his big word is “balance”. That sounds more like consolidating Clark’s consolidation than preparing the next big leap.
But, as polls tell him, voters have little appetite for big leap. Business as usual is much more comfortable, even if it is the last epoch’s “usual” rather than the “usual” to come – as it surely will.

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and NZ Management’s regular political columnist. [email protected]

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