LEADING A NATION

Former Prime Minister John Howard recently spoke at the Mortgage & Finance Association of Australia’s (MFAA’s) national convention about leadership, the state of the world economy and the challenges faced by the government

EVEN IF you don’t agree with his politics, there is no denying that John Howard knows a thing or two about leadership.

He was Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister, leading the country from 1996 to2007.

“In the time that’s gone by since I left politics – or should I say, more accurately, since politics left me – there is no doubt that people have frequently said, ‘What really constitutes good leadership?’ And there’s no simple answer to that,” he says.

THOSE AROUND YOU

Mr Howard says the main reason his time as Prime Minister wasn’t marred by the internal leadership rumblings, leadership challenges and media speculation that have plagued the current government was his ability to lead those closest to him.

“The relationship between a leader and what I call the ‘immediately led’ is very important,” he says. “In a political party, it’s the relationship between the prime minister and his or her cabinet ministers or parliamentary party.

“We’ve seen some examples. We’ve seen one in recent years in relation to the man who defeated me in 2007, Kevin Rudd, where obviously his relationship with the people immediately around him had become dysfunctional.

“And it’s an extraordinary phenomenon of modern politics that a political party should have waited for almost 12 years in Opposition, to then
find somebody who was successful and then, that person having been successful, they remove him before he’s had the chance to seek re-election.

“In my humble view, that still remains one of the explanations for the great unpopularity of the present government.

It’s not the only reason – there are other reasons – but it is one of the reasons. It confuses people and you should never confuse your own supporters.

“You don’t attack your customers and you don’t attack your own supporters. You don’t confuse them.”

VALUE PROPOSITION

People will, however, only support and follow you if you have a “well defined set of values”, according to Mr Howard.

“The most important ingredient of good leadership in a political context – and I dare say that it’s important in the context of business as well – is that you need to have a well-de ned set of values.

“If you don’t believe in anything and you don’t understand why you believe in certain things, you really are going to be a failure as a political leader.”

Mr Howard says one of the comments he enjoys hearing most about his contribution to Australian politics is: ‘Well, I disagree with a lot of things that he stands for, but I know exactly where he stands and what he believes’.

Plenty of people loved him and plenty loathed him, Mr Howard adds, but if people came out of political combat knowing what he stood for and why, then he had done his job properly.

EAR TO THE GROUND

The next most important aspect of leadership, according to Mr Howard, is the ability to listen to those who support you and those who don’t.

“Politicians who don’t listen, political leaders who don’t listen, business owners who don’t listen, corporate executives who don’t listen are destined, in my view, to fail.

“That doesn’t mean you go on  listening forever,” he continues.

“My experience in politics was a combination of listening and sometimes – indeed, quite often – deciding to do what the great bulk of people had suggested I do. But on occasions, I applied my own judgement and went against the bulk of the advice that I was offered.”

Sometimes those decisions, such as to introduce the Goods and Services Tax or take the nation to the war in Iraq, were to prove unpopular, but being able to make the tough calls is part and parcel of being a good leader.

PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT

One thing that both Mr Howard’s supporters and his opponents tend to agree on – and stand behind – is the landmark introduction of gun
control legislation in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

This action, widely regarded as his greatest and most enduring achievement, was apolitical, according to Mr Howard.

“It’s not a left/right, liberal/ conservative issue; it’s a public safety common sense issue,” he says.

“Sadly, on this particular issue, there is a huge divide between Australia and the United States.”

Mr Howard says his other notable achievements are cutting spending and balancing the budget; reforming the taxation system and the labour market; and “standing shoulder to shoulder with America in the fight against terrorism”.

The enduring strength of the economy, he says, has ultimately helped Australia step up onto the world stage.

“If you have a strong economy, you have a strong, authoritative voice in the world politically and diplomatically,” he concludes.

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