By Chris Trotter*
Leadership. The corporate world is obsessed by it. In the absence of strong corporate leadership an adequate return on the shareholders’ investment cannot be guaranteed. Poor corporate management can lead to poor dividends, lower share prices, disinvestment and, ultimately, disaster. That’s why corporate leadership matters. In theory, anyway.
Many critics of contemporary capitalism argue that corporate managers exercise excessive influence over the businesses they run. That neither the corporate board, nor the shareholders, any longer exert any real influence over the management – until it’s much too late. Poor corporate leadership can, indeed, lead to failure, but the price paid by bad leaders is often in inverse proportion to the size of the disasters for which they are responsible. When they leave the scene of their managerial crimes, it is only very rarely that they depart empty-handed.
Poor corporate leadership is seldom punished.
Poor political leadership, by contrast, is almost always rewarded with the Order of the Boot.
The reason lies in the very different kind of power that corporate leaders wield. Corporations are permanent hierarchies in which vacancies are filled from the top down. Political leadership works from the bottom-up. If corporate leaders are measured against the power and wealth of the corporations they command, then political leaders are judged by the number and enthusiasm of their followers.
It’s the only definition of leadership that makes any sense in the world most people live in – which is not the corporate world. A leader has followers. If a person lacks followers, then they are not – by the reckoning of most human-beings – leaders. The other real world distinction between corporate and political leaders is that the former have power given to them, while the latter take it for themselves.
It is why all the books written about corporate leadership ring so hollow. The behaviour prescribed for leaders in these breathless volumes is the behaviour of a successful courtier – and the only power successful courtiers wield is the power given to them by their sovereign. A courtier retains power by retaining the confidence of the person at the very summit of the hierarchy. Political chiefs stay at the top only for as long as those below them are willing to trust and follow “their” leader. Without the trust and confidence of their followers, political leaders are powerless.
Christopher Luxon has plenty of experience in the intricacies of corporate leadership. He knows what must be done to retain the support of those above him. His successful career as a corporate executive amply confirms that he has mastered the politics of hierarchy. But, New Zealanders are still awaiting confirmation that Luxon has successfully transitioned from the politics of the boardroom to the politics of the caucus-room. Does he fully grasp, even now, that it is only the support of National’s MPs – along with the more than a million party followers who elected them – that keeps him in the top job?
Luxon became the parliamentary leader of the National Party in November 2021. Not, it must be said, after a strong and successful demonstration of his political leadership skills – particularly those relating to the attraction and retention of followers – but because the National Caucus had run out of options.
Bill English, the man who had led them to a Party Vote of 44% in the 2017 General Election, while an excellent Finance Minister, and a deep political thinker, had never quite managed to convince himself that he had what it took to lead the NZ National Party. A great pity, because it is one of the ineluctable rules of democratic politics that politicians who doubt themselves find it extremely difficult to convince others.
English’s replacement, Simon Bridges, appeared equally plagued by doubts. At times he seemed like a nervous adolescent, heading-out with his stylish girlfriend for the end-of-year school ball, wearing his father’s suit. Leadership of the National Party never quite seemed to fit Bridges: it was always too big for him.
Bridges nemesis, Todd Muller turned out to be living proof of “Dirty Harry’s” warning that “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Like Labour’s disastrous leader, David Cunliffe, Muller proved himself to be much more adept at winning the leadership of his party than wielding it. The difference being, Muller took only a few weeks to realise that he was completely out of his depth. A conclusion not reached by Cunliffe, even after winning just 25% of the Party Vote!
Muller’s replacement, Judith Collins, had long been hungry for the leadership of her party – and her country. It was just that her preferred means of getting there, beneath the daunting mask of “Crusher”, put off a great many more voters than it attracted. The New Zealand electorate has, over the years, displayed a worrying willingness to elect frightening male leaders. Scary female leaders, with the obvious exception of Helen Clark, have enjoyed considerably less success. National’s terrible showing in the 2020 General Election (25%) dissolved what little was left of Collins’ political judgement – along with the confidence of her caucus colleagues.
And that just left the man acknowledged by all to be the preferred option of National’s most successful leader since Keith Holyoake – John Key. Never mind that Christopher Luxon had been a Member of Parliament for barely a year, his successful career as a corporate leader – as CEO of Air NZ – was deemed to be more than sufficient preparation for the job of Leader of the Opposition.
But was it, really? Luxon had been seized upon by his fellow Nats with the same desperation as the drowning man seizes upon a lifebuoy. He was new, he was fresh, he had a bright smile and he wore a suit like the boss he had been. But, unlike his patron, Luxon never quite understood that voters are not employees. You can’t just instruct them to vote for you and your party; you have got to give them a reason for voting that way. In a democracy, politicians cannot simply demand people’s votes, they have to earn them.
Yes, yes, yes: National won 1,085,016 Party Votes in 2023, which is a great deal more than Judith Collin’s 738,275 in 2020, but, Luxon’s 38.6% of the Party Vote falls a long way short of Key’s winning percentage of 44.6 in 2008.
That’s because Key, unlike Luxon, had spent two years giving New Zealanders a reason to vote for him. Speech by speech, stunt by stunt, goofy-grin by goofy-grin, Key had done what all political leaders do – he had gone out and got himself some followers. Key may have been a highly successful player in the grand financial casino, but he knew the difference between corporate and political leadership. The electorate doesn’t vote for designations, it votes for ideas. 38.6% is what Christopher Luxon got for not being Chris Hipkins. It isn’t enough.
And it’s not at all clear, yet, what Luxon’s ideas are. He had very little that was inspiring to say before the election, and he has had virtually nothing even interesting to say after it. The man doesn’t yet seem to understand that he hasn’t been appointed to lead New Zealand, he’s been elected. There’s a difference.
A political leader would have used the three weeks between Polling Day and the counting of the Special Votes to talk to New Zealanders. There were horrors in Israel and Gaza. There were things to say about Te Tiriti and Democracy. About economics and security. About a world gripped by multiple crises, and about the Prime-Minister-Elect’s confidence that New Zealand would get through them all. Because this, the country he has been given the extraordinary privilege to lead, is a remarkable place, filled with remarkable people.
He could then have strode into those coalition talks, and David Seymour and Winston Peters would have risen from their seats and applauded – the nation’s leader.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.