I am writing this article on the eve of what, depending on which opinion poll you listen to, will be a close election or a landslide victory to the party opposing Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard.
I have no doubt that John Howard will lose. My rationale comes back to the Prime Minister’s opening remarks in the 2004 election campaign. “This election is about trust”, he said.
Leadership is always about trust. Mr. Howard, in my opinion, will lose the election because sufficient people have learnt to not trust what he and much of his government say.
Mr Howard was, early in his career, known as “Honest John”. It was a mantle he appeared to wear with pride, always telling people what he thought. It is true, in my mind, that he still does that today. So if he still tells the electors honestly what he thinks, how did he lose the trust?
He lost trust in ways which many leaders of organisations lose trust.
Firstly, most of the stories that have been told for the last year and a half have been about the past, not the future. The only stories which have been told about the future have been either frightening (terror, the mere thought of a Labor government, the economy if it suited the argument) or paternalistic (climate change, the economy if it suited the argument).
People generally want a positive story about the future. They don’t mind a look back to see where we have come from. However, they need to know that whatever of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been satisfied for them, the leader will build a motivating future for them. People trust others to lead them somewhere. Resting on your laurels as a leader is not an option.
Secondly, plausible deniability appears to have become a manipulating tool of not only the prime Minister but the whole of government and much of the public service. There are only so many times as a leader that we can deny having known something which our followers reasonably believe we should have known, or found out about.
Plausible deniability raised itself to a high level for weeks with the “children overboard” claims, the AWB case and to a lesser extent, the Dr Haneef case. Other less significant cases came across our morning newspaper and television screens quite regularly.
As leaders, we can claim that others below us have responsibility, which they do. However, eventually we have to accept accountability for the actions of those below us. Or we have to accept accountability for our inability to hire, train, motivate and manage the people below us to act appropriately.
When we do not take accountability or only do so with words, rather than actions, we lose trust.
Thirdly, it has been a characteristic, in my observation, of particularly the Prime Minister, to make general claims using very precise words to make them true should the claims be subject to scrutiny at a later date.
When they listen, most people do not listen for specific words and definitions to judge whether what is being claimed applies to them or not. They listen for general claims measured by general words. When the Prime minister said we will keep interests rates lower than the opposition, the words were cleverly constructed making it sound like interest rates would be kept absolutely low, even though the words meant relatively low.
When interest rates rose six times, the words, if examined, would show that no lie was told. At least, that is, from the point of view of the sender of the communication. However, communication is not about the sender. It is about the receiver. If sufficient of the receivers heard, “We will keep interest rates at record lows”, then that is what was “said”.
The characteristic of being precise and clever with words is common amongst lawyers but not amongst the general population. When we repeatedly use clever phrases to enable us to never be proven wrong, never to tell a lie, we gradually erode trust, like water on a stone.
Leadership is a full time occupation.
For people to follow us, as leaders, they must believe that we will lead them somewhere, especially if we have already succeeded in getting to a different somewhere.
We must take accountability. Plausible deniability does not cut it.
We must speak openly and make sure that people understand our message, not by being clever but by being clear and speaking in a language our followers understand.
Do these three things and we will maintain trust and people will continue to follow us.
John Howard, in my opinion, is liked well enough, but not trusted. That is why he will lose the election.