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Dunne Speech Principals Catholic Secondary Schools

Peter Dunne Speech to National Association of Principals of Catholic Secondary Schools

Annual conference, Portland Hotel, Wellington

"Leadership for the Common Good"

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the invitation to address you on a topic that has fascinated me for the past 30 years or more.

Nor is my interest academic.

I aspire to lead this country, which means I have a particular interest in the qualities of successful leadership.

A friend once gave me a quote: "Real leaders are ordinary people with extraordinary determination"

I have taken that message very much to heart, as a personal motto, and it is the text that substantially underpins what I want to talk to you about this evening.

As a historian, political scientist, and for the last 19 years a practising politician, I have now spent the best part of 30 years studying political leaders throughout history, and in particular the characteristics that made them the people they became, and which contributed so much to their subsequent achievements, notorious or otherwise.

The overwhelming reality is that virtually all history's great leaders have been ordinary people, whose gift was to be possessed of extraordinary ideas and determination to achieve them.

On rare occasions only has there been the leader born to rule, whose talents were so outstanding that no-one dared stand in their way, but they are so much the exception than the rule that they cannot be seen as a useful role-model for anybody.

Unfortunately, more common has been the superficial leader - the person about whom a false persona of leadership is created, often by propaganda, or in today's world by sycophantic media seduced by charm and treating, or fear - but such leaders never succeed, rarely survive, and invariably leave far more damage than positive progress behind them.

We have not been immune from such people in our own country.

We have had leaders whose success has been due to their ability to charm and others who succeed because they frighten and scare people into submission.

Unfortunately, too often the starting point for any consideration of political leadership in particular is invariably Lord Acton's famous dictum that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.''

(As an aside, I recently saw a T-shirt slogan which read "Power corrupts, and absolute power is even better.")

I do not believe Lord Acton's statement is an accurate assessment any longer, if indeed it ever was, despite the admittedly popular perception.

Yet, as far as most people are concerned, it is probably still a most reasonable reflection of leadership perspectives in business, education and politics world-wide today.

And, on the face of it, many examples could probably be advanced to support it, judging by the constant stream of scandals the media brings to us almost daily.

My view is, however, that while we can all identify examples of leadership failure the world over, the reality is that, in most cases, the problem has a basic cause.

More often than not it is because of simple human failure, a consequence of our intrinsic imperfection, if you like, to give the issue a quasi-religious connotation.

Somewhere along the line a leader's sense of personal vision has failed them, and, for whatever reason, they have broken with their personal integrity, and come to see themselves as the embodiment of their office, or their role, rather than the transitory holders of it.

Where such things happen it is because leaders have forgotten that leadership is always a pact between the leader, the followers, and a dream.

Leaders are there to implement the dream, because that is what people share, not to inflict all their prejudices upon us because they think we are there to be led, or guided.

It is a critical but important distinction.

United Future's dream, or vision, of the family at the cornerstone of New Zealand society captured enough of the popular imagination at the last election to give us eight votes in Parliament and the opportunity to be in a position of influence with the Labour-led Government.

My point is that visions are not merely airy-fairy statements; properly promoted, they have very practical effects.

I have no doubt that in the course of your daily work you see what the effects of family breakdown are.

It has been calculated that family breakdown is costing New Zealand billions of dollars a year.

We have the world's second highest rate of single parent families.

Divorces have doubled in the last 30 years, while marriages have fallen 60%.

321,000 children - a third of all children - are raised on a benefit, twice what it was 15 years ago.

Child assaults are up almost 200% in the last decade and 40% of our criminals are aged between 14 and 18.

In the face of those statistics, United Future offers a positive vision.

We want a New Zealand that is not only united in family, and in community, but also in our vision for the future.

Our New Zealand is a safe New Zealand - in the physical sense, certainly, but also safe in the way that home is safe.

Warm, welcoming, non-threatening. A place where it's great to come home.

A place where we feel secure in our identity, in our opportunities to advance ourselves, in our opportunities to meet and greet our neighbours and where everyone feels welcome.

So ours is also a welcoming New Zealand, a creative New Zealand, a New Zealand where fresh ideas are encouraged, a 'can-do' country where patriotism and a sense of nationhood are not emotions to be ashamed of or hidden.

Our New Zealand is a positive place, an enabling society, where people take responsibility for their own actions, their own futures, their own opportunities.

Our New Zealand celebrates, and just as importantly encourages, success wherever it happens - in the arts, sport, business, in academic endeavour.

In our New Zealand, tolerance is a virtue and diversity is celebrated, not condemned.

All of these are attributes we would want for our own family - not just for our country.

That is why it is our passionate belief that the family is the very cornerstone of New Zealand.

That is not because of some quaint belief in family values - although there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

It is because strong and healthy families mean a strong and healthy New Zealand.

So how does a true leader promote that vision?

It is my contention that what is now commonly termed the failure of leadership occurs because leaders the world over are losing sight of the paradox of leadership.

The simple paradox is that leading is also about listening and serving, about humility as much as it is about boldness and demonstrations of strength.

Leaders who fail are those who fail on this point.

One of the most famous examples of a leader who fell prey to excessive self regard was Richard Nixon, who thought himself beyond the law, and summed up his fate, not in legal terms of guilt and innocence, but in terms of the ongoing political struggle:

"I gave them a sword. And they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I'd been in their position I'd have done the same thing."

He could not have been more out of touch!

One could argue that there were eerie reflections of the Nixon position in President Clinton's conduct over, and response to, the Monica Lewinsky scandal where the boundary between individual ethics and the dignity of the Presidency became increasingly blurred, indeed redefined, as the President squirmed more and more like a worm on a hook.

Then there was Margaret Thatcher who often went far beyond the mandate of her Cabinet, whether it was to personally allow the United States to bomb Libya from British bases, or to frustrate Britain's entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Charles de Gaulle was a similar case, with his famous line:

"When I want to know what is good for France, I look into my own heart."

These examples are all of comparatively recent origin - but history is littered with similar examples.

But power itself is only a part of the problem.

John Steinbeck provided a rider to the power corrupts notion by saying that what really corrupts is not power itself, but the fear of losing power.

And I would add to that, the desire to acquire power at any cost.

Sir Robert Muldoon is perhaps the most recent tragic New Zealand example of that principle at work.

Leadership is not an unfailing adherence to the blind "do as I do principle."

Leadership, ironically, is about following - not passively responding to every whim and demand of the public, but recognising that leadership is about serving; understanding people's needs, and responding to them in a principled and coherent way.

It is therefore far more about substance than appearance.

It is about more than sporting that winning smile, the snappy suits, and getting your ten seconds on prime time television.

Leadership goes far beyond seizing on easy issues for cheap political gain, or tailoring views for popular support, regardless of what you actually think.

It is about doing the hard yards; day in and day out, year in and year out.

It is about doing the little things that may never be noticed, but which are the building blocks of the future, as well as the big events.

Leadership is about fearlessly fronting up to the issues, and taking responsibility and giving answers, not about always reciting media-honed platitudes.

Those concepts are as relevant to the leadership of a country as they are to the leadership of a school or other lay institution.

Too often, we make the mistake of confusing leadership with charisma - that most overworked of today's many meaningless buzzwords.

Indeed, I believe that confusion lies at the heart of much of our current disillusionment with politics and politicians.

Charismatic leadership has been proven to be a contradiction in terms.

While charisma is certainly about being able to inspire people, which is fine, it is not about being able to lead effectively.

Good leaders may well be charismatic, but charismatic leaders are rarely good ones.

They invariably leave a trial of administrative chaos behind them, as their egos and half-baked ideas get in the way of what is actually attainable.

Names like Nkrumah in Ghana, Mobutu in Zaire, or Marcos in the Philippines readily come to mind here.

The xenophobic and erratic local leaders who have been a sad part of our political scene in recent years also fit in this context, and their legacy has been just as disastrous.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, look at a person like Eamon de Valera.

He first became President of the Irish Republic in 1919 and still held that position when he finally retired, well into his 90s, over a half a century later in 1973.

In between times, he had spent over 21 years as Prime Minister and 16 years as President, as well as lengthy periods as Leader of the Opposition.

De Valera never lost an election which he contested, and is universally regarded as the founder of the modern Irish Republic, and the dominant political force in shaping and guiding that country's recent turbulent political history, and birth to nationhood.

However, that dour, tall, craggy, rather aloof, former professor who liked to solve complex mathematical problems as a hobby, and who was virtually totally blind for his last term as Prime Minister and his last 14 years as President, could never have been described as charismatic.

Yet he was stunningly successful.

My conclusion? Good leaders are simply good at what they do.

They inspire those around them through what they actually do and achieve, not through what they tell others they might do, if they ever got the chance.

History provides many examples, in all fields, of leaders with feet of clay, who inevitably pay the eventual price for their shallowness.

Yet to paraphrase Karl Marx, the man whose wife wished her husband spent more time earning capital than writing about it, the thing to learn from history is that people do not.

Despite the ample evidence all around us of the failure of charismatic leadership, wherever and whenever it occurs, from Castro in Cuba to Peron in Argentina, to the examples in our own country in the last quarter century, the vagaries of human nature mean that sadly there will always be a ready audience for the oily messages of the con-artist, in business, in politics, and in life.

What is perhaps more sinister is that there is always a market for modern day snake oil merchants ready to peddle crackpot schemes and ideas on the basis of their charisma, rather than any principles or substance.

That cynical manipulation is in my view the ultimate corruption, brutally exploiting human frailty for selfish gain, rather than using talents constructively for the common good.

In its extreme form it produces the evil of a Nazi Germany, or Idi Amin's Uganda, or the bumbling tomfoolery of Mussolini's Italy.

Yet none of this goes to the heart of leadership, in my view, which brings me back to my central theme.

Successful leadership has to be based on something more substantial than image and technique - to survive and engage people it has to face up to the compact that I spoke of before.

By all means, leaders should be passionate about their beliefs.

Leaders have to have the courage of their convictions and they have to be prepared to back them in their actions.

The way President Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis was surely the ultimate test of his principles and judgement, which is why he is one of the political leaders I admire the most.

All of which brings me back to the issue of values and community service.

In essence, what I am talking about is principle centred leadership, or leadership based around a clear set of values and a willingness to use those values to serve the interests of the wider community.

So, what are the values that I believe effective leaders ought to be promoting in today's environment?

The first has to be that of integrity - a recognition that all interactions have to be characterised by openness, a clear acceptance of accountability, and a commitment to always work towards agreement, rather than confrontation and division.

If leaders cannot demonstrate those characteristics in their own behaviour, what chance is there of influencing others of the need to act in a similar way?

The second principle our leaders should embrace is that of an absolute commitment to liberty and justice.

That means upholding the law of the land at all times and acting in a way consistent with it.

The third value of leadership is an absolute commitment to the family as the cornerstone of our society.

Whatever our background, our beliefs or our circumstances, we all have a group of people we recognise as our family to whom we repair for times of celebration, or consolation, and whom we regard as our foundation stone.

Good leaders recognise and embrace, and do not try to diminish the value of families either by following policies that are specifically contrary to their interests, or more commonly, becoming so entrapped by political correctness that they become too paralysed to speak up for what most people regard as the interests of the family for fear of upsetting those whom they feel do not fit that pattern.

I am all for tolerance and celebrating diversity, but for too many leaders these terms have become easy ways out for not taking a stand on anything, and that has to change.

The key point is surely this: if we create an environment which leaves out the role of the family, we can hardly be surprised when we see families becoming dysfunctional or individual citizens growing up feeling alienated and out of place.

The next value flows logically from that and it is the issue of community responsibility.

All of us are part of a wider community; no matter how individualistic we may think we are in terms of our own lifestyle, or how self-contained we might pretend to be.

Indeed, our society is an amalgam of ever increasing communities from our families, to our neighbourhood, the clubs and groups to which we belong, the place we work, our suburb, our town or city, our province, our country, through to our world.

We have responsibilities in respect of all of these communities, which our leaders have to acknowledge.

Leaders also have a responsibility to liberate people's talents and skills so that they can do their utmost to achieve their full personal potential.

That does not mean, in my opinion, doing everything for people, or seeking to impose a grim conformity, which stifles flair and initiative.

Rather, it implies a sense of trust where innovation, creativity, opportunity and success are celebrated, not sneered at or penalised, and where the state's proper role of safeguarding the welfare of society's most vulnerable is acknowledged.

Flowing through all these values is perhaps the most important value of all - a recognition that a successful society can only be built on the foundation stone of appreciating the contributions that all of its members can make to it.

New Zealand is extraordinarily well placed to lead the world in this regard, but sadly, we are in danger of missing out altogether because of timid political leadership, that does not want to appear politically incorrect on these issues.

The face of our society is changing rapidly and we are becoming a far more diverse society, culturally and ethnically.

Over the next 50 years, the European New Zealander will become an ethnic minority, and, as the former Race Relations Conciliator, Dr Rajan Prasad put it so bluntly to my party's conference a couple of years ago, we consequently face three stark choices.

We can either resist outright this inevitable change and end up extremely embittered and alienated; we can just stumble along, neither resisting nor accepting what is happening; or, we can actively embrace the coming change now, and do what we can to make it successful.

Clearly, the latter option is by far the most preferable, bringing with it the option of shaping the future development of the Kiwi as a genuinely unique species, but it will also require determined leadership to achieve it.

For New Zealand to survive long-term it is vital that this issue is addressed today, not in 10 or 20 years time when it will be too late.

My message to you tonight is that principles, competence and ideals are the keys to effective leadership, now and in the future.

Those who seek to be effective leaders should be focusing on these attributes.

In my view, charisma not power is a far more likely corrupter of leadership, because people simply come to believe their own propaganda.

Now many of you will have probably written me off by now as hopelessly idealistic, but I make no apology for it.

Indeed, as a Piscean, I am more than happy to be portrayed as an idealist, for I do have a vision of what I would like to see New Zealand become.

In short, I want to see us become a sophisticated, progressive, modern country, respected for our commitment to tolerance and diversity, where the key roles and values our families are valued so that we are recognised the world over as the best place to live and bring up your family.

That used to be the image of New Zealand and I see no reason why with proper leadership and sound policies we cannot achieve that status again.

Yet to achieve those visions, even idealists must have a tinge of pragmatism, if not expediency.

The best leaders are pragmatic dreamers, prepared to compromise if the result is for the greater good, not just for their own advantage, but holding firm on matters of principle.

Speaking personally, I know precisely when I decided I wanted to become a politician.

I was 11 years old, and had just heard a powerful speech on the radio from Norman Kirk, the then Leader of the Opposition denouncing the Government's decision to send New Zealand troops to Vietnam.

It was not Vietnam that aroused my interest - at that age I barely knew where the country was - but Kirk's powerful evocation of New Zealand nationhood and the need to make such decisions in the light of what we felt as Kiwis, rather than what others might pressure us to do.

As New Zealanders we all possess a unique gift, no matter what our status is, where we come from, who we are, or how long we have been here.

We possess the unique of gift of being a New Zealander and thereby knowing that taken together our individual elements of that gift weave the tapestry that makes New Zealand the place we are all proud to come home to.

When you look at things that way meaningless current slogans like getting back into the top half of the OECD, one standard of citizenship for all, or cutting immigration to the bone, are shown up for their trite absurdity.

It's time to stop wallowing in the mire, and celebrate afresh what makes this country great and why Kiwis are proud to come home to it.

They say nothing promotes success like success.

Promoting our successes is the best way I know to ensure we have more of them, and to ensure that our families and communities prosper and grow stronger as a result.

That is United Future's vision for New Zealand and I am determined to provide the leadership to achieve it.

Thank you for your attention.

© Scoop Media

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