John Hewson and the Modern Leader

I watched Andrew Denton interview John Hewson last night. I wonder how he ever became a politician, let alone the opposition leader with an outside chance of becoming a prime minister. I remember him as the economics professor in my university, occasionally sighting him on campus. He appeared very serious and certainly very ambitious, but the type who would neither stand for rhetoric nor suffer any fools.

The GST was his brainchild. He of course lost the elections to Paul Keating and it wasn’t until the Liberals came to power under John Howard and Peter Costello that the GST came into being – was it in 1995 or 1996. I think few remembered Hewson as the person who brought it about. Sure it was Costello’s push and Howard’s deal making which made it happen but it all started with Hewson.

From the interview, it appears as though Hewson should have been the owner of the moniker “Honest John”, instead of Howard. It was his honest albeit disastrous answer to Mike Willessee’s (forerunner to “A Current Affairs”, even before Jana Wendt) question about whether GST will make a cake more expensive, which buried him. The political naiveté oozing out of that very honest answer was cringe worthy – I can’t imagine any politician going through such an intellectually honest but non media savvy answer but on the other hand I also cannot imagine Tracy Grimshaw asking either Wayne Swan or Joe Hockey a similar question today. Or maybe I can but the response would certainly be more media polished.

Hewson was a workaholic personified. He was working in Hill Samuels, the precursor of Macquarie Bank, while also working in the university. His 18 hour days and 100+ hour weeks saw 2 marriages crumble. Still only 60 years old now and often appearing as a political commentator on Fox, he appears to have mellowed a lot. He has always had that know it all look, creating an arrogant aura about his character, which of course was never going to help his political career, honesty notwithstanding.

What Hewson appeared to have patently lacked was what some of my mates would call “relational skills”. He didn’t seem bothered with what others’ agendas were, only with issues at hand. His objectivity was looked at as callous refusal to consider deal making. Leaders today are expected to engage people, often almost at all costs. If a leader concentrates on substantive issues at the expense of exercising “relational” elements, he or she is often viewed as an ineffectual leader. What this can lead to is leadership which is across opinions and feelings but lacking in substance. Hence we observe an absence of intellectually rigorous and robust policies or statements of values from our leaders today. Truth and objectivity requires time and hard work. Emphasis on “people issues” can come at the expense of neglecting this area. Perhaps the solution lies in knowing exactly what we want from our leaders – people who meet and greet and listen to you often or people who meet and greet issues and decide the right course to take.