Must do better, Jon Johansson

Political Leadership in New Zealand
Raymond Miller and Michael Mintrom (ed)
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 1869403584

One of my favourite leadership stories derives from the French Revolution. A self-styled revolutionary leader is enjoying a typically Parisian delight, his morning coffee, when a furious mob storms past. Our leader leaps to his feet and cries, “There is the mob. I am their leader. I must follow them.”

Apart from alluding to the crucial nexus between a leader and those they purport to lead, this story also reveals a blemish in Raymond Miller’s and Michael Mintrom’s otherwise excellent contribution to New Zealand’s burgeoning literature on political leadership. The editors rightly point out that our domestic political leadership research has largely been forged on the back of biographical accounts of our various premiers and prime ministers. The editors attempt, therefore, to fill the resulting gap and “establish an agenda for the ongoing analysis of political leadership in New Zealand.”

The introductory chapter, indeed, goes a significant way to achieving their aim. In an excellent discussion of the protean nature of their subject, Miller and Mintrom point to a fundamental truism about political leadership: namely, it is a process. Leadership is also, one might add, entirely an artefact of our human minds. After all, leadership is ultimately an idea, a manifestation of our cognition, of our imaginations. In fact, it’s a universal idea that has been debated for well over 2000 years – and one we perceive, feel and observe every day. The editors’ essential point is that political leadership emerges out of an interaction between formal and informal leaders, the contexts they are embedded in, and the needs and wants of the citizenry.

The editors, alongside their colleague Tania Domett, twice declare in their concluding chapter that any precise leadership definition remains elusive. It is,however, one of the most crucial first-principle issues if one’s goal is to promote a rigorous future research agenda. Political leadership is in this sense no different from any other subject or domain under investigation: its foundations – that is, its concepts and parameters – must first be laid down so that each construct can be debated, researched, refined, and then debated afresh.

The so-called elusiveness in defining political leadership stems, in my view, from a tension described well by an old Buddhist proverb: “If the string is too tight it will snap; but if it is too loose, the instrument will not play.” Thus narrow definitions of political leadership either produce too small a sample of potential cases to study, usually on the back of some explicit ethical loading, or lapse into the meaningless because the definition, in an attempt to capture all available leadership phenomena, is far too expansive.

A definition of political leadership, provided in my Two Titans: Muldoon, Lange and Leadership, is that it is a dynamic interaction that occurs between an elected leadership (whether individually- or group-based) and its citizenry. It is mediated to varying degrees by situational constraints and opportunities. The leadership interaction is characterised by a leader or leaders combining power and purpose to achieve certain shared objectives with the citizenry. This definition does, in fact, closely mirror the model and depiction of political leadership offered by Miller and Mintrom in their introductory chapter.

As for the editors’ blemish: it is important to recognise that while political leadership may have been understudied here – ostensibly for deeply-rooted historical and cultural reasons – there is an extant literature. Miller’s and Mintrom’s edited collection – alongside the explicit leadership framework provided in Two Titans (2005) and the collection of leadership studies in a recent special political leadership edition of Political Science (December 2004) – follows on from the previous research and writings on political leadership that preceded these contemporary publications.

In the special edition of Political Science, I singled out Canterbury University scholar John Henderson as the pioneer of leadership research in New Zealand. While Henderson’s studies in the 1970s and 1980s would be nowadays classified as leader-centric, heavily influenced as they were by Henderson’s interest in the psychological aspects of political leadership – a perspective this reviewer shares – they did represent the forging of a distinctly indigenous leadership literature. Auckland University’s Barry Gustafson is another contributor to this literature. He has analysed prime ministers Michael Joseph Savage and Robert Muldoon – the subjects of two superb biographical studies – explicitly in terms of James MacGregor Burns’ transformational/transactional leadership dichotomy. In recent times, political commentator Colin James and academics Stephen Levine, Nigel Roberts, Michael Bassett and Simon Sheppard, all using different leadership approaches, have made interesting and insightful contributions to the accumulation of knowledge about leadership processes in New Zealand.

So, rather than establishing a new framework for studying the leadership phenomena, Political Leadership in New Zealand more properly provides yet another timely reminder that somehow or other political leadership is inextricably linked to explanations and debates about our politics and our future. Respective contributors to the edited collection all tap into various leadership streams of thought and offer an extensive array of studies which, in combination with Miller’s and Mintrom’s astute framing, allows readers to pose their own leadership questions. Do our leaders matter? What tools allow a leader to discern one political context from another? What ethical questions about the nature of politics does the exercise of political leadership raise?

Another question for me is much more direct: what is the purpose of political leadership itself? Miller and Mintrom argue that in our complex and interconnected world, leadership helps to reduce uncertainty and empower the wider public in collaborative problem-solving. Underpinning these ideas is the notion of change, whereby political leadership serves as an instrument of social adaptation. Certainly political leadership, at its discerning best, can facilitate change, providing the people with more and better choices about their future.

Leadership can, therefore, liberate. At its most elevating, it can also seek to educate the public about the nature of its choices as well as unify disparate groups of citizens into some sort of collectively shared and agreed national purpose or idea. And if there is one yawning contemporary failure as regards leadership, it must be in terms of our race discourse. Our political leaders need to offer a vision of reality and/or a narrative that can allow all New Zealanders to move beyond the divisive political exploitation of race that we have witnessed during the past three years.

Because our leadership literature is still developing, there is a rich store of leadership phenomena out there to research. Conceptions of Maori leadership – intelligently albeit narrowly analysed here by Ranginui Walker – will provide a vibrant strand to our future research agenda. To take one example, the different rhetorical tradition within Maoridom offers an alluring possibility when we finally welcome our first Maori prime minister. The fusion of this one Maori cultural dimension directly into our prime ministership is an exciting prospect. New Zealand also has, perhaps uniquely, two of its minor political parties wedded to the concept and exercise of co-leadership. Future research into this form of political leadership will surely contribute significantly to the international literature on a leadership system that, at least in the realm of theory, better promotes collaboration, compromise and balance.

Political Leadership in New Zealand reflects an ever-growing realisation that political leadership is a crucial tool for leading societal change, for resolving uncertainty and our many policy dilemmas, as well as for educating people about the nature of their present and future choices. Miller’s and Mintrom’s collection therefore represents an important contribution to our increasing body of leadership studies.  Howard Gardner, a leading psychologist and leadership scholar, believed that, as a species, we were more likely to secure responsible leadership if we could demystify its constituent processes. In that sense, Gardner believed, enhanced knowledge about leadership could conceivably go hand-in-hand with more morally desirable forms of leadership. Miller, Mintrom and the book’s various contributors have all striven to demystify aspects of our political leadership processes. Political Leadership in New Zealand is thus, in its own way, a useful step in our scholarly attempts to challenge our leaders to do better.


Jon Johansson specialises in political leadership at Victoria University of Wellington.


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