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What makes a leader?

15 Mar 2024

| Author: Chris Trotter

The latest Curia Poll contained some bracing news for Christopher Luxon. His ratings had taken a tumble, placing him (astonishingly) below the politically comatose Chris Hipkins. No one was in any doubt as to the cause of Luxon’s woes. They could be summed up in two words: accommodation allowance. While Luxon’s self-inflicted political wound is unlikely to prove fatal, it is revelatory of the prime minister’s greatest weakness: his extraordinary political inexperience.

John Key entered the House of Representatives in the general election of 2002, and did not assume the leadership of his party until 2006. He would not become the Prime Minister of New Zealand until 2008. Compared to many New Zealand prime ministers, six years’ learning the ropes may not seem very long, but in Key’s case, it was plenty long enough. Luxon’s apprenticeship, barely half as long as Key’s, hardly gave him enough time to confidently locate the parliamentary toilets.

Why did Luxon not give himself more time? There are at least two good answers to this question. The first, and the most obvious, explanation is, to quote the British prime minister Harold Macmillan: “Events, dear boy, events.”

Luxon entered Parliament in 2020, following a general election in which the National Party received the second-worst shellacking in its history. National’s caucus seethed and slithered with recrimination and rebellion. In November 2021, the incumbent leader, Judith Collins, not-so-stealthily pursued by National’s former leader, Simon Bridges, lost the plot so comprehensively that her caucus felt obliged to publicly declare its loss of confidence in her leadership. Since 2017, National has run through no less than four leaders. The party was polling in the 20s. Something had to be done.

All eyes turned to Luxon. It was an open secret that the new Member for Botany was Key’s protégé. Like Key, he came to Parliament having amassed a considerable fortune – first, as a successful corporate manager in Canada, then as the CEO of Air New Zealand. This was a familiar right-wing trope, which, in Key’s case, had proved itself handsomely: “What’s needed is less government in business, more business in government.” National agreed: Luxon was the man for the job. He needed no apprenticeship. He had the chops to whip his fractious party into shape, and to take the fight to all those woke socialists in the Beehive.

Besides, there was nobody else. It was one of those historical inflexion points that would have tested the most experienced of politicians. But it was also one of those moments when years of political experience would likely have served the person caught in history’s headlights worse than none at all. Luxon did not know what he did not know about politics. He is also one of those Christians who detects the hand of God moving through the events in which they find themselves enmeshed. Leadership was his destiny. He’d helped to run Unilever. He’s run Air New Zealand. How hard could it be to run New Zealand itself?

But running a country is not the same as running an airline or selling soap powder. A more experienced politician would have known that. And if, in spite of all misgivings, he had allowed his name to go forward, then he would’ve had a pretty shrewd suspicion of what lay ahead – and been ready for it.

From the day a political hopeful joins the Young Nats and discovers the joys of being at the bottom of the totem pole. From the terror of their first political speech and the surprise and relief when the audience applauds it loudly. These are the memories that stick. Along with the novice politician’s guilty pleasure at seeing a carefully planned and ruthlessly executed strategy bear fruit. Learning to harden the heart when the friend who joined the wrong side must be removed from their post. All for the good of the party. Political apprenticeships can be rough.

There will be those who object that these are experiences all leaders – those in business, as well as those in politics – share on their rise to the top. Yes, they are similar, but they are not the same. When business bureaucracies began to grow in the nineteenth century, the organisational model their capitalist owners turned to for inspiration was the hierarchies of military command. Power flowed downwards. Those at the top issued orders and those at the bottom obeyed them – or sought a new situation.

But the parties of parliamentary democracies are neither businesses nor military hierarchies. They are best thought of as contemporary replicas of the ancient Athenian agora. Places where there are no captains, no bosses, only primus inter pares – first among equals. Those with the most inspiring ideas and the most persuasive tongues will be elevated above their peers in recognition of their possession of the one and only phenomenon that reveals a true leader – followers.

It is followers who propel a politician ever higher up the totem pole of power. And it is the politician’s ability to retain followers that keeps her there. This understanding is crucial: one must listen to what people are saying before one can talk about them sympathetically; or speak for them authoritatively. Because the longer one listens to people, the easier it is to find the words and phrases that move them. Think of the words for which the former Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is best remembered: “They are us” and “team of five million”. People are not moved by the bloodless bureaucratese that Luxon’s bulletpoint assemblers regularly place in his mouth.

Luxon was made National’s leader and, hence, became New Zealand’s prime minister because his party had run out of options. The support he attracted was born of desperation. His colleagues recalled the effortless leadership style of Key and accepted his protégé in the expectation that he would replicate it. A forlorn hope, not only because Luxon had been a parliamentarian for such a ridiculously brief period of time, but also because he had no history within the party. The man lacks the political muscle memory of what is acceptable conduct, and what isn’t. No leader with even the slightest rapport with ordinary Kiwis could possibly have made the mistake of accepting a $52,000 accommodation allowance for an apartment he already owned – mortgage-free!

From the very beginning, Luxon has misread his role. He continues to operate as if he is still in command of a large corporation. The sort in which, when the boss orders its employees to “jump!”, they immediately ask “How high?” While National may have restructured itself to resemble a corporation, it remains, in its instincts, both democratic and meritocratic. Like every other Kiwi, your average Nat bridles at being bossed around.

And what is true of the National Party is even more true of New Zealand as a whole. Luxon may think that all he has to do is issue an executive order to do this, that, or the other, and New Zealanders will snap to and obey. He still offers scant evidence of understanding that the way a CEO communicates with his employees is not the way a PM addresses his fellow citizens – not when those same citizens get to conduct a full performance review of that PM’s leadership every three years.

Indeed, Luxon would be wise to spend some time reflecting on the career and qualities of the late Efeso Collins. The politician from South Auckland could boast no material legacy: no towering monuments to his political clout. (Although had his life not been cut so tragically short, there might have been.) And yet, he was loved and admired by tens of thousands of New Zealanders.

His sudden loss delivered a shock to the members of his generation equal in many ways to the shock delivered by the death of Norman Kirk. If a leader’s stature is to be measured by the number of those who mourn his passing, then Efeso Collins was a great leader. He didn’t demand the obedience of his people; he invited them to join him and he listened much harder than he talked.

There are worse examples that Christopher Luxon could follow. ■

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