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Lessons from Recent Political Leadership Changes July 12, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Leadership, Leadership and management.

The second quarter of 2010 turned out to be very noisy on the political front.  A change of leadership took place in three major developed economies, one through the due process of election, and two before the incumbents had finished the term for which they were elected.  David Cameron replaced Gordon Brown as Prime Minister in the UK, Naoto Kan replaced Yukio Hatoyama in Japan, and Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd in Australia.

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, to lose one prime minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness; and losing three is downright recklessness.  Yet the tumultuous events of May and June in these three countries are rich with lessons for leaders who live under more salubrious circumstances.

Be sincere and respectful

By the time the polls took place on May 6, few in the UK expected Gordon Brown to return to Downing Street after the election.  As Chancellor under Tony Blair, his wait for the leadership role had long outlasted his patience.  He was often criticised for being rather dour.

Yet for all his faults the one thing that put the last nail in his electoral coffin was making derogatory remarks about a supporter he had just met.  Settling down into the car after meeting a long-time Labour supporter, not realising that he still had a microphone pinned to his shirt, he was heard calling one Mrs Duffy “a bigot”, saying to his aide: “That was a disaster – they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous.”

Brown’s tendency to find someone to blame was characteristic of him and probably not catastrophic, but Mrs Duffy later said that she was most upset about being described as “that woman”.  This exposure of Brown’s scorn for his supporters was devastating.

Have a vision and stick to it, and explain any change clearly

Kevin Rudd came to power in more or less a landslide.  Climate change featured prominently in his campaign against the Howard government, calling it “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”.

According to the Herald Sun, in December 2007 Rudd “did an about-face on deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, days after Australia’s delegation backed the plan at the climate talks in Bali”.  He apparently changed his mind after hearing warnings that it would lead to huge rises in electricity prices.  The Guardian called his subsequent abandonment of the carbon emissions trading scheme legislation in April “a remarkable act of political cowardice, if not ineptitude”.

Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan swept to power nine months ago after defeating the Liberal Democratic Party with promises to return more power to local governments, especially on Okinawa bases which local residents resent.  Yet instead of moving the deeply unpopular Futenma US military base off Okinawa altogether, he decided to relocate it to another part of the island.

Neither Rudd nor Hatoyama appeared to have taken much trouble explaining to their followers why they had changed their minds on key planks of their campaign platforms.

Consult, consult, and consult

According to Kevin Rudd, his Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard informed him on the evening of June 23rd, 2010 of her request to hold a leadership ballot the following morning.  Factional leaders within the Labour Party were worried about losing the next election.

The last straw that broke the camel’s back in the party caucus was Rudd’s insistence on pushing through a massive increase in a special profits tax on the mining industry, apparently without much consultation with his colleagues.  Although the proposal was part of a report on tax changes, the magnitude of the tax increase surprised the mining industry.  In the end, Rudd had lost touch with his colleagues and supporters in the party.

Swift symbolic acts upon assuming power

What of the successors to Brown, Hatoyama and Rudd?  They all appeared to have moved quickly to make important symbolic changes, exploiting their political capital during their honeymoon as newly elected leaders.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg, in the first coalition government in the UK for 65 years, were falling over themselves to show how they had put aside their ideological differences to work together.  They also lost no time in sternly warning the nation about the austerity needed to bring the UK out of its economic quagmire.  At their first meeting, members of the cabinet declared a 5% cut in their salary as a symbol of collective belt-tightening.

Julia Gillard in Australia moved quickly to declare publicly in her acceptance speech that she would cancel the government’s planned advertising in support of the mining tax.  In return, she asked the mining industry to abandon its advertising opposing the tax.  Within two weeks, she reached agreement with the mining industry on the tax, although by making important concessions on the government’s position.

Succession by a member of the same team

Both Rudd and Hatoyama have been replaced by a member of the team who had worked closely with them.  As Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard would have had a hand in formulating the key policies for which Rudd suffered ignominious defeat in the hands of his own party’s power brokers.  Quite apart from the implications of her appointment on the democratic process of electing leaders, why would her succession as Prime Minister signal any change?  Did she genuinely express dissent during discussions about the mining tax, or was there no discussion at all?

Likewise, Naoto Kan was Finance Minister in Hatoyama’s government.  How can one expect that as Prime Minister, he can implement economic policies which will help Japan reduce its mountain of debt and revive the economy?  Did he have the guts to stand up to Hatoyama when he decided to give in to the Americans on the military base in Okinawa, or was he a willing partner?

When a political leader is ousted for policies which appear to have failed, why should the electorate believe that an important member of the team succeeding him or her will bring the needed change?

In summary

From changes in political leadership in the UK, Japan and Australia in the last couple of months, all leaders should heed the following lessons:

–          Followers, no matter how low in the chain of command, deserve and expect to be treated with respect and sincerity, not merely as a means of shoring up the leader’s position.

–          Followers expect leaders to keep their key promises, and when they don’t they need to understand why.

–          Although leaders are there to make decisions, they should not assume that they can do so alone, without consulting or convincing members of their teams.

–          When leaders assume power in circumstances where change is clearly expected, they will do well to make timely moves that signal a break from the past.

–          Successors to fallen leaders who are key members of the previous team need to confront the scepticism that greets their assumption of power.  Explanation of their involvement in previous policies will help dispel doubts about the possibility of real change.



1. jainly - July 27, 2010

I do not usually respond to content but I will in this case. Seriously a big thumbs up for this 1 C CLass IP hosting!

Alan Yu - August 2, 2010

Thank you for your kind comment of encouragement.

2. Wayne McEvilly - April 27, 2011

Although this relates to political events of last year this post is applicable to any situation at any time that one is in a position of dealing with an entity including other people! (LOL that’d be just about every parcel in the heap of our life’s doings!)
I find it applies as I deal with the various personalities in the “chain of command” at the libraries which sponsor my concerts these days. I often think that the lower down the scale the entity the fiercer the politics involved.
Just one instance of the “applicability” of your thoughts to my circumstances: “Although leaders are there to make decisions, they should not assume that they can do so alone, without consulting convincing members of their teams.” Boy do I ever deal with those leaders. They make decisions without so much as taking into account the guy who is playing the Mozart Sonatas – as though to say “Oh, this has absolutely NOTHING to do with you. We are management. We are public relations.” I want to say “Yo Dude -or, in this case, Dudette! It is my face on the poster, do you have to choose the one with the scow?” But even at this bottom rung of the Leadership Ladder one must be a diplomat!

Alan Yu - April 28, 2011

Wayne, Many thanks again for your comments. One would think that it should be second nature for anyone making a decision to check with the person(s) most affected by the decision, but how often do we all fail to do that! Sometimes, consulting with others is seen to be a sign of weakness. That’s probably why we don’t do it as often as we should. Best, Alan

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