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New Leaders Forum

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 15 April 1997
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Good morning - tena koutou katoa.

Right from the start - well, even before it - I've failed three of the tests of true leadership.

First, I've failed to identify my objective: I didn't get a title to this talk to the organisers in time for the printing of the programmes. Indeed, I still haven't got one, so the "TBA" which the printer had to resort to, remains. That of course gives you the dangerous opportunity to give it your own title.

Secondly, I lost my nerve. When I saw who else was speaking to you, and read the great variety of truly interesting and challenging things you are doing with your lives, my courage wilted. What on earth am I doing here? I've been a long time a judge, and judges are not encouraged to be imaginative or dynamic, but instead dry, and dull.

Thirdly, I acted precipitately, without thinking through the consequences of accepting an invitation to talk to the Young Leaders' Forum, without looking below the surface.

Because all the really great ideas are like icebergs: there is more to them than at first meets the eye. Below the surface is where you find most of the meaning. That's certainly the case with the topic of "leadership."

I accepted the invitation to join you this morning quite happily - "Talk to the New Leaders Forum?: certainly." I didn't suspect a thing.

But then, I began to ask myself: what am I going to talk about? This was immediately after I realised that it was quite possible that you had a head start on me in thinking about the topic; what leadership might, or might not, be; who possesses it; what is it fundamentally? What goes to make a good leader?

These, I think, are not easy questions to answer. It's like being asked to describe an elephant. The best Ogden Nash could do was to describe it as an animal with a handle at both ends. Many people prefer to say that it's very hard to describe, but that they know one when they see one.

It's a bit like that with leadership, and those qualities which make a good leader. Nonetheless, I thought that's what I'd talk about. And although I know it's what you're all talking about this week, perhaps another angle may be useful.

So, what makes a good leader? Putting the question like that makes an obvious and important distinction. There are good leaders and there are bad leaders. By bad leaders, I don't mean poor leaders. That's really a contradiction in terms. A poor leader is no leader at all.

A bad leader is one who has most, perhaps almost all, the qualities of leadership. But his leadership is actually destructive: of his followers, of other people, even of himself. Some of the gangs that cause so much trouble must have quite remarkable leaders. They can get their members to do almost anything: rob, rape, kill even. But I don't see them as good leaders.

Nor was the boy up the road when I was eight, who all the kids ran after because he was big and strong, and who persuaded me to throw a stone through a bus window while he ran away and left me to take the rap.

The outstanding examples of bad leaders in recent times of course, are Hitler and Stalin.

That is because, charismatic as at times they were, those two men led themselves and others to become monsters, rather than anything - anything - good. Hitler had this to say about leadership: "The efficiency of the truly national leader, consists primarily in preventing the division of the attention of a people, and always in concentrating it on a single enemy." In other words, you cannot unite with others to work for "good," however defined; you can only unite 'efficiently,' (whatever he might have meant by that), only if you are ganging up on 'outsiders.' Hitler's basic assumptions were that he had to react to what he believed to be wrong with the world; and that people can only unite against something; never for something.

Especially considering the source, this should be our definition of what true leadership is not.

Instead, true leadership is a response to the human need to achieve something, anything, positive.

And the people who can catch the vision of what others truly need to achieve, who can bring others together in a unity of purpose to achieve it, they are the ones displaying genuine leadership.

That word 'vision' is very important. "Where there is no vision, the people perish," the Book of Proverbs says. And this is so true. We all need to set our sights on something better, some ideal, and to strive for it. It may be a great vision, like a world free from hunger, or a more humble one like cleaning up the pollution in our local river. But unless we have something to look for, to strive for, something that is beyond ourselves, we lose our true humanity. A leader is one who can capture a vision, an ideal, who can share it with others, and who has the enthusiasm and the determination to see it realised. Where one such person goes, others will follow.

The extreme, negative examples of Hitler and Stalin illustrate all too vividly that good leaders are those who use their gift for leadership for some noble purpose. A true leader, someone whose name will be remembered with honour, is never aiming to achieve wholly earthbound goals. To lead, you do have to be practical - not so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use, as someone put it. You do have to actually get things done in the world, but that said, neither is it ever inspirational to focus solely upon next quarter's financial results, if you see what I mean.

Nor is leadership ever best exercised solely to get followers to work together, to unite simply for the sake of uniting, however desirable this can be under certain circumstances: "working together" is an ideal that can be corrupted, to become the mere expression of some ancient herd or pack instinct - where we back ourselves into circles, tail to tail, with eyes, ears and fangs facing outward; waiting, anticipating, even hunting for hostility. It's the working together towards a common good that is, properly and fully, humane.

I hope I'm not putting all this on so lofty a plane that we're losing sight of the fact that leadership is not the preserve of the elite few. It's needed at the top of course, but it's needed at every level and in every situation.

There's also a notion that leadership is something that you either have or that you do not; that it's some sort of a digital virtue: "Yes or no, you're either a leader or a follower". Nonsense, of course. Leadership is a personal quality, a personal capacity, possessed by everyone.

Everyone has the ability to lead; everyone does takes the lead on some subjects or actions. Similarly, everyone has the ability to recognise, and to heed, a good idea or a sensible person: all sensible individuals, therefore, are followers for some of their time.

Nor does a good leader need to be charismatic. The great leaders, the ones whose names are revered, certainly have a charisma that captured the hearts and the imagination of entire nations - Winston Churchill is an example, Nelson Mandela is a contemporary one. But we don't have to be charismatic like them to be good and effective leaders. The qualities of leadership are attractive in themselves - I'm sure it wasn't just the Pied Piper's music that caused the children to run after him.

You've already had a session on the corrupting influence of power. Related to it is a perception, perhaps a belief, practised rather than expressed that leadership is a quality exercised to create personal power, that leadership qualities are what you need if you're interested in self-aggrandisement. This, however, is inherently contradictory I'd have thought. If you hold that leadership is a virtue, a facet of character to be striven towards, how can you hope to be taken seriously when you also claim that it is a quality whose purpose, whose main outcome, is the feeding of the age-old vices of pride and vanity? Yet even though the proud and vain may become unduly influential on occasion, a true leader is committed to service to others, not just the advancement of self. There is no such person as a solitary, self-involved, solely self-serving leader.

Now that, unfortunately, may sound rather old fashioned. The dominant modern view of 'life, the universe and everything' was expressed in a popular song a few years ago: that we're living in a material, not a social, or an ethical, or a spiritual world. Therefore, the logic of this view proceeds, we humans are no more than dust; and unto dust, only dust, and nothing but dust, we shall return.

So for a moment, let's go below the surface of the subject of leadership by examining that basic assumption. Because what we decide about this matter - about what sort of a world we are living in - will settle what the concept of leadership does mean, or can mean.

So, how important is it, really, to earn more money than the next person; to drive the smartest car; to go to the most fashionable of restaurants; to take exclusive holidays, well apart from those who're not in the know?

Are you just what you eat?

What you own?

Are you merely who people think you are? Is image what really matters?

The answer has to be that while doing fashionable things and owning fashionable possessions may be nice, that there's nothing wrong with either, in itself, people who pursue nothing other than these material goals in life, become desiccated. They become arid. They wither within themselves, and they also leach those around them.

No-one can become or remain a happy person, when they pursue only things in life. Humans have a higher purpose, so whenever we suppress our better instincts in favour of self-involvement and self-indulgence, we suffer for it. The golden rule, it turns out, is also an iron rule.

And this conclusion was first arrived at, so far as we know, two thousand four hundred years ago, in Athens, by that man named Socrates. "Let no day pass without discussing goodness," was just one of the things he said that demonstrated his leadership, which was an intellectual and moral leadership.

Nor was his a quiescent, warm and fuzzy, touchey and feelie goodness. After all, he irritated the good citizens of ancient Athens to such an extent that they forced him to drink poison, just to shut him up. So he was, without doubt, no mere panderer to popular opinion or to conventional wisdom.

He was not at all like the notable who once rang an opinion pollster with an urgent request. It was a time of great turmoil in this so-called leader's country, the story goes, and public opinion was "fluid," to employ one of the customary euphemisms.

In plainer English, nobody knew what to think. There was certainly no clear consensus.

Our man was eager to find out what the latest public opinion polls revealed about attitudes towards an important issue of the day - what the particular issue was doesn't really matter - the important fact is that the eminent man wanted to know what everybody else was thinking. The pollster said that he didn't have the answers that his patron was demanding, at which his caller exclaimed, "What do you mean, you don't know? Find out! I have to know what's going on, which way people are headed. I'm their leader, for goodness' sake, I have to follow them." To which I would respond: Oh, no, he wasn't.

It's an oft-told anecdote. But it still has enough of a point to it that it should make everybody wince, whenever it is repeated.

Because much more often than is desirable, the story is not satire, or a jibe, but a sad little piece of reportage.

It is indeed very easy - particularly in a world that's so busy that you might feel that there's no time to just sit, and think, and make personal choices - it is very easy to accept that it's the opinion of others that must always be taken into account. So others' opinions should. But not to the exclusion of everything else; not to the exclusion of doing our own thinking; our own deciding; making and taking our own choices; establishing and adhering to our own values.

There are standards other than those of contemporary convention, that are much more appropriate guides to behaviour. Having, and living by, a set of ethical principles, is one such standard; indeed, it's the vital standard, whether your ethical principles are derived from religion, or based, probably with difficulty, on something else, some other creed. But having them and living by them, by your own set of ethical principles, then you're in a position to win your own good opinion. That's what makes for a happy life, not the possibly-fleeting regard of others. And it's what makes an effective leader.

I'm going around in a bit of a circle here, because I'm coming back to what I was saying about vision. Vision, I suggest, is the quality that all true leaders must possess. The capacity to foresee, to imagine, to describe what is desirable, is what defines all leaders, what characterises and measures them, wherever and whenever and whoever they are. Their visions are pictures of what might better be.

And possessing and cultivating a sense of vision, of possibility, of hope, and being able to communicate this is, I believe, the cardinal characteristic of both leadership and leaders. A leader is a seer, the practical dreamer of dreams, the enlister of support to achieve shared goals, common purposes. Leading - and following come to that - has to be focused on something of true worth - directed towards anything less, we only advance to our destruction: to where "the people perish," as Proverbs puts it.

"True worth": to form a judgement about that requires us to make a fundamental decision about how to view existence, what to believe about the human condition, our basic choices in life, the nature of the world. Are we only temporary beings, each of us merely a fleetingly-conscious accident, or does each of us have a presence that transcends the four physical dimensions? And is there a higher authority than our earthly leaders, our earthly leadership?

If you give an affirmative answer to that last question, then I believe you have within yourself the capacity to make sound moral and ethical choices, which in turn singles you out as a potential leader. You have the necessary ethical framework for making good decisions. You have at the very least the beginnings of a sense of a greater good than that of personal interest. And you have within yourself a sense of purpose in life. Without that, leadership can have no object.

What I've been saying so far has been about moral purpose, moral authority, which as I see it is an essential requirement for good leadership. But of course, it's not the only requirement.

Much too often, leadership is seen as being the ability to command - but it's not so: the ability to enlist support, certainly, but not to command compliance. There's a widespread yearning, it seems, for simpler days, when the stereotype of being a 'hero,' or a 'warrior,' was everything that was praiseworthy - the crippling belief that issues must be resolved into black and white, that our world should be populated by heroes and villains rather than real people; that experiencing leadership, then, should feel exactly the same to most of us, as hero-worship.

On that basis, there aren't too many leaders about. It doesn't take us long to realise that most of our heroes have feet of clay. No, leadership is really about the enlisting of co-operation, not the giving of orders.

Well, besides vision and the communicating of that to others, what else will enlist this co-operation that will enable us to get where we want to go, taking others with us?

I suggest three qualities, although they overlap, they aren't in really separate compartments.

The first is consistency. "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle," as Saint Paul put it. Consistency means that we know where we want to go, and that we keep going until we get there. That involves planning, setting shorter-term goals, anticipating problems, keeping a cool head when things go wrong, having courage when that's needed. I like Robert Louis Stevenson's advice - "Keep your fears to yourself, share your courage with others."

Some friends were telling me the other day of driving along a narrow lane in Ireland, between high hedges, with very little passing room. Suddenly, around the corner and at very great speed, came a very large, wide truck. My friend pulled right over to the left, and the truck just got by leaving bits of hedge scattered about, but fortunately, no bits of car. They were just recovering from the shock of this when round the corner, also at great speed, came another much smaller vehicle. It carried a sign: "Wide Load Following." Something decidedly wrong with the planning there: why was the leader at the back?

And talking of keeping a cool head, I was told about a famous professor of philosophy at Cambridge who was waiting on the railway station platform for the train to London, and was in a deep and spirited conversation with two colleagues. So involved were they that they did not notice the train come in, seeing it only as it was moving away. He made a dash for it, the others followed: they managed to jump on but the professor was too slow and was left behind, looking very distressed. A railways person saw him and reassured him: "Don't worry. There's another train in half an hour." "I'm not worried for myself," replied the professor. "I'm worried for my colleagues. They only came down to see me off."

The second leadership quality is competence. That doesn't necessarily mean the leader has to be able to solve every problem personally, but at least he or she will have someone at hand who can. In other words, a leader needs to be ready to delegate. A very good example of competence, in the form of practical thinking, is a story about a class of police recruits. The instructor had talked all morning about leadership. Around noon, it was time to see how much of what he had said had been understood. Calling one of his students to the front of the class, he handed him a piece of paper on which was written, "You are in charge. Get everyone out of here without causing panic." The recruit was at a loss for words, couldn't think of a thing to say, and soon just gave up and returned to his seat. A second man tried: "The chief drill instructor wants us outside. Go!" But no-one showed any urgent desire to comply - drill was not one of the recruits' favourite pastimes. But a third man glanced at the paper, smiled and said, "All right everyone. Break for lunch."

The room was empty in seconds. The recruits had been looking at their watches for some time. It was, after all, past twelve o'clock, lunch hour, and they were hungry.

The third man thought about his classmates' circumstances more clearly than did the first two, and recognised the true nature of the task which the instructor had given him. He had vision, perhaps you could say - he thought about the task he had been assigned, but he also thought about his fellow recruits, their circumstances, and what might credibly and legitimately motivate them.

The third quality is trustworthiness. A true leader is someone who can be trusted to be worth listening to, whose advice is trustworthy, because that person will look out for Number Two, Number Three and Number Four, as well as Number One.

Trustworthiness is much the rarest quality of the three.

Puzzlingly though, it's the one that's often ignored. Perhaps because trustworthiness is an aspect of character, discussing it, talking about the virtue, falls into the same category as talk of God and religion: something that's become embarrassing to talk about in public; not smooth, but almost gauche, or impolite, or 'inappropriate.'

People talk about skills and higher education as being the necessary qualities, these days, for individuals and countries to prosper. But trustworthiness is every bit as vital - trustworthiness is what really qualifies people to make an effective contribution to public life, to professional life, to business life, to life in whatever community you live. And it qualifies a good leader.

There are many, many aspects to this. Trustworthiness comes from honesty and reliability. It comes from leading from the front, not the rear. "Do as I say, not as I do," will not engender it. It comes from understanding the needs of others; from sharing triumphs and disappointments; from learning how to stay a little apart, but yet not aloof; from being loyal and fair and not having favourites. A little humility and a lot of good humour - not buffoonery - go a long way.

Recent historical examples of this quality of trustworthiness were some of our wartime generals - I think of Montgomery and Freyberg in particular. They would regularly move among their troops, talking to them, sharing their concerns, taking a personal interest in them, never letting them down. As a result, they were respected, admired, and they inspired. Sir Edmund Hillary too, became personally world famous, but still spends much of his life working with and for others in the Himalayas, working to improve Nepali social conditions. He knows the people - speaks their language, understands their needs, and they will do anything for him.

In the end, however, I can only try to illustrate leadership, or talk about aspects of it, assert certain beliefs, without ever being able to provide an all-inclusive definition. I doubt that such a formulation exists. Because no matter how thoroughly you go into the topic, there is always something more that might usefully be said.

Yet as a man named Pubilius Syrus wrote in the 1st century BC, "Any one can hold the helm when the sea is calm." By clear implication, the test of a leader, a helmsman or woman, is to be able to steer when the ocean is rough. That, I suggest, cannot be done if the helmswoman or man cannot maintain balance on deck, when the vessel is lurching through wind and wave.

And given that we live in an era when social, scientific and technological change is accelerating bewilderingly, the world surely requires that the people doing the steering have some sort of a behavioural compass, deep inside them, that never points their ship, with its passengers, into danger. That, I put it to you, is ultimately what a leader is, whether old - or more importantly for the future of this country, and the world - young, like you.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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