Enter left: let’s hope Rudd isn’t a ‘Strong Leader’


My impression of Australia’s political transition is conveyed in a photograph published in the Canberra Times a few days after the Governor-General swore in the Rudd Government. It shows two couples – Kevin, Therese, John and Janette – taking tea at The Lodge in Canberra. It could have been a promotional shot for a real-estate firm, showing how, after the heat of the auction, the transaction has been advantageous for both buyer and seller.
It has been a tranquil transition. No gloating, no hubris, no revenge. The strongest sign of emotion was Maxine McKew’s irrepressible smile, but she, too, showed extraordinary grace in victory.

The Rudd Government will not sink the boot into John Howard. Even if it were of a vindictive nature, there would be no point, for he has departed from the political landscape.

It would be unfortunate, however, if Rudd and his colleagues, either in their good grace or political pragmatism, do not reflect on the failings of the Howard Government, for in those failings there are warnings and lessons for any government.

Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay
‘Exit Right – The Unravelling of John Howard’, should be compulsory reading for all politicians and their advisers. Doubtless it will appeal to those Howard haters who wish to indulge in the fleeting joy of schadenfreude, but it is a far more profound work, for it takes to task the popular but false notion of the virtues of the Strong Leader. (Brett capitalises the term ‘Strong Leader’ almost as an archetype.)

Brett shows how those qualities of doggedness, determination and discipline, which were so much part of Howard’s character and which are so typical of the Strong Leader, were the very qualities that contributed to his downfall. My reading of her essay is that it is not so much a criticism of John Howard, as a general criticism of the Strong Leader, with Howard as a convenient and topical case study. It’s a demolition of the stereotype of the clear-eyed and determined visionary who leads from the front, who sees what must be done and does it.

In her analysis, she draws on the work of Graham Little, who, in turn, draws on the work of the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, a renowned authority on group dynamics and one of the founders of Britain’s Tavistock Institute.
A supporting perspective can be found in the work of another psychoanalyst, Ron Heifetz, founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government.

Unlike the popular writers, Heifetz rarely refers to ‘leaders’ in his teaching and writing. Rather, he talks about the work of leadership. In his terms, leadership involves mobilising people to do ‘adaptive work’.

Typically, in the psychoanalyst’s office, the task is about helping the client to adapt to some difficult situation such as a marriage breakup or death of a spouse. The traditional psychoanalyst steers the relationship through a difficult path, in particular avoiding dependency and being on guard for the mechanisms the client uses to avoid doing his or her own difficult adaptive work.

Heifetz takes this approach to the political sphere, where he develops a normative theory of leadership similar to that of the work of the professional psychoanalyst.

Judith Brett’s examples provide illustrative case studies of where there are departures from professionalism, particularly where the ‘Strong Leader’ avoids the adaptive work and allows – or encourages – dependence amongst those around them.

One of the most common means of avoiding adaptive work is to engage in denial, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of the Howard Government’s approach to global warming. We can see it too in his approach to the economy, where his message was reminiscent of then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s claim ‘you’ve never had it so good’, hoping that while we went out shopping we would ignore our economy’s structural deficits.

Howard, in his own words, wanted Australians to be ‘relaxed and comfortable’, not to think about difficult issues like climate change, foreign debt, household debt and other indicators of structural weaknesses in the Australian economy. The Strong Leader is like the paternalistic father putting his children to bed, assuring them that there are no hobgoblins or wicked witches out there.

Another way to avoid work is to create a distraction, such as a threat from which the Strong Leader can protect his flock. Howard’s ‘war on terror’ and his strong claims on border protection (‘We decide who comes into this country’) were cases in point. There are indeed hobgoblins and wicked witches out there, but the Strong Leader will protect us. It helps, of course, if we can have someone real to fear. Osama Bin Laden is a little too far away, but there are plenty of people in our suburbs who share his faith and who may be carrying an AK47 or suicide belt under those strange clothes. And the big bad union thug about to beat up a hapless small businessperson is always a convenient hobgoblin, as demonstrated in the Liberal party’s scaremongering advertisements during the recent Federal election.

Yet another way to avoid work is to engage in ad hominem attacks. To John Howard, most issues involved clear-cut choices. To Howard and his ministers, critics – particularly academic and professional ‘elites’ – were his enemies. Even Machiavelli, writing 500 years ago, could have warned him of the risk of such a confusion.

Howard’s failings are in the past, but they are relevant to our newly-elected government. The strong lesson from Judith Brett’s essay, and from Ron Heifetz’s teachings, is that leadership is difficult. It is particularly difficult from a position of authority, for Heifetz carefully distinguishes authority from leadership. Authority is vested in a position, such as the position of Prime Minister. Leadership, by contrast, can be exercised from any position.
Leadership, by its very nature, is unsettling: authority, on the other hand, is about maintaining the system in equilibrium. There is a necessary tension, and many people in positions of high authority do not handle that tension well.

From the position of authority there are certain assets. The position of Prime Minister comes with a strong voice, and a certain capacity to decide what issues are on the agenda. Howard managed that agenda carefully: the Republic was off the agenda, as was Aboriginal reconciliation (until the pressure became overwhelming); by contrast issues where the government had a strong lead in the opinion polls were kept on the agenda.

But there are also certain liabilities attached to the authority position, particularly the position of Prime Minister. One, of course, is the strong pressure of electoral politics. Another is the network of lobbyists, ministerial staff and public servants. In the inner circle is a Praetorian Guard of advisers protecting the Prime Minister and the Executive from the outside world and its bad news. And there is the strong influence of the public service, whose competence lies in its handling of continuity. The public service is adept at resisting fundamental change, not because of any inherent conservatism, but because fundamental change is painful. Its response to an incoming government’s reform agenda is often to recast difficult adaptive issues into simple technical problems requiring no more than an incremental change in direction.

Heifetz stresses the difference between technical and adaptive issues. Public bureaucracies are good at handling technical issues – building new roads, enacting consumer protection laws, and collecting taxes. This is not to say such issues are free of controversy: every new physical project seems to involve some NIMBY issue. But adaptive change is more difficult, for it often involves significant loss, and not the sort of loss that can be covered with a tax break or financial compensation. Those losses can involve a change in lifestyle (e.g. adapting to a low carbon economy), or the loss of a way of life (as is confronting many farmers and foresters).

Hence, there is a temptation for governments to ignore such difficult issues, at least until after the next election.

But when a problem becomes overwhelming, there is also the temptation to take immediate and decisive action – a particularly appealing path to the Strong Leader. As Brett says of Australian electors (not unlike the electors in other democracies) ‘what they want are solutions’. It is telling that she recounts Costello’s mocking of Kevin Rudd, when he says of Rudd’s faith in committees ‘A leader doesn’t go to committees; a leader knows what he wants and announces it’.

That power is always available, and, at times, may have to be drawn on. But it is dangerous. For example, it has taken the world’s great democracies into a costly war in Iraq. More basically, it fails to engage with the community. In the short term, while all goes well, it leads to a culture of dependence, but when people come to feel the pain associated with decisions which they do not ‘own’ they react strongly. Heifetz uses the term ‘assassination’ to dramatise the reaction. When a government says ‘trust us’ on interest rates or housing affordability, it is setting itself up for political assassination.

By contrast, a process which engages with the community, which explains the difficult tradeoffs facing the people, and which acknowledges the possibility of pain, is more likely to result in enduring change. It may be slower than quick, decisive action, but it is more effective in the long term. When he was Industry Minister, John Button showed it could be done: over several years he was able to bring industrialists and unionists to accept the need for reductions in tariff protection. His process was slow, but it was inclusive, and it was in contrast to the earlier initiative of the Whitlam Government’s decisive 25 percent tariff cut, which had the effect of delaying further tariff reform by a decade.

If, through community engagement on important issues, a government establishes trust, it will accumulate goodwill to be drawn on when it must make a quick decision or take actions which are difficult to explain. But trust is a fragile asset. The Wheat Board scandal and the ‘children overboard’ issues cost the Howard government dearly; even when it was acting in the public interest its initiatives were confronted by hostility and resistance.

To conclude, then, what are the difficult adaptive issues facing the Rudd Government? Doubtless more will arise, but four prime candidates are coping with climate change, modernising our economic structure, meeting the needs of indigenous Australians and reforming health care.

  • The adaptive challenge of climate change is huge. Signing the Kyoto Convention was important symbolically, but the real adaptive work is ahead of us. It will undoubtedly mean changes in our everyday lifestyles in terms of energy costs and water use. For some it will mean huge disruption. For example, there is no assured future for much of our agricultural activity, such as irrigation-based farming and grazing in the arid zone (a long-standing source of Australian mythology). The easy way to weasel out is to complain about the Arabs and the oil companies for gasoline prices, and to offer financial drought assistance to farmers, but that’s avoiding the hard work.
  • Our economic structure is weak, but it’s difficult for any government to admit it, particularly when most people really ‘have never had it so good’. Our high living standard (or, I should say, our high level of material consumption), is based on the relatively easy cash flows of natural resources and increasing household debt. One day we will have depleted our easily-won resources, and one day we will find we have gone beyond the limit of our credit cards. Whatever long-term solutions are available, there will be some short-term pain as we make the necessary economic adjustments.
  • Aboriginal reconciliation is about much more than saying ‘sorry’, although, as with climate change, symbolic action is important. The problems faced by Indigenous Australians, particularly those living in remote communities, are huge, and we are only starting to realise that we have an impoverished and disconnected group whose conditions are on a par with some of the worst regions of the African continent. There is no easy solution, and whatever approach is taken will upset some people’s deeply held beliefs about the desirability or otherwise of paternalism and self-determination.
  • The fourth difficult adaptive issue is health care. For more than half a century we have muddled through with incremental solutions to basic problems. We have pretended to have a universal and mainly free system, but the reality is that we cannot have it all. There always has been and always will be some form of rationing, by the intervention of governments and health insurers or by market forces, but our present mechanisms of rationing are haphazard, costly and unjust. It is a hard call on a health minister to engage with the community, to put hard questions such as ‘how much should we pay from our own pockets without the distortion of insurance?’, ‘how should we ration high-cost care for people with self-destructive lifestyles’ and ‘what principles should guide us in switching from curative to palliative care for the frail aged?’. Bureaucrats and cautious politicians will want to go on with incremental solutions, which will duck these hard issues and will make our arrangements even more costly and unjust.

So, when Kevin Rudd and his colleagues read Judith Brett’s essay, will they find in it lessons for themselves? Will Rudd be tempted to follow John Howard not only into the Prime Ministerial Suite but also into his style as the Strong Leader? Or will he and his fellow Members of Parliament engage the community on hard issues and exercise strong leadership?


Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, ‘Leadership on the Line – Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading’ (Harvard Business School Press MA 2002)

Ron Heifetz, ‘Leadership Without Easy Answers’ (Harvard University Press MA 1996)

Charles E Lindblom, ‘The Science of “Muddling Through”‘ Public Administration Review Spring 1959

Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’ (originally published 1531, several translations)

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