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SMELLIE SNIFFS THE BREEZE: Can John Key be a "Level 5" leader?

by Pattrick Smellie

Jan. 15 (BusinessWire) - Coming as he does from a corporate background, it's a fair bet that Prime Minister John Key has come across more than the occasional management and leadership theory.

Among the more potent of those to emerge in the last decade is the idea of the "Level 5" leader, a concept dreamt up by American management researcher Jim Collins, who conducted a study for Harvard University of the most successful Fortune 500 companies' chief executives to see what made them tick.

The result was both surprising and reassuring to anyone sick to death of the Big Man senior managers still found running big organisations everywhere.

According to Collins, in his seminal book on the subject, "Good to Great", leaders of great organisations have two distinguishing characteristics: a fierce professional determination mixed with, of all things, humility.

One suspects this is what made John Allen a loved CEO at New Zealand Post, a business that should lose money like post offices in most countries, but instead became a company that New Zealanders approve of almost 100%, and which also owns Kiwibank, arguably the country's most loved financial institution.

These are the kinds of leaders who, when Collins asked one of them to sum up their management style, would fall silent for a puzzled moment or two and then reply: "Eccentric". That's inspiring.

You don't meet these leaders every day and, funnily enough, not many corporations endure and prosper over the long term either. Most companies, and a lot of other big organisations, are run by the flashy pricks, the merely competent, the low risk-taking political operators, the bullies, and those who prattle about excellence or a values-driven corporate culture while producing none of the above.

Collins's argument, crudely put, is that this is one of the main reasons that most companies don't endure. Nothing to do with the state of the world economy or any other external forces - all about how the organisation is led, organised and believes in itself.

As he put it in an essay a couple of years ago: "When you've built an institution with values and a purpose beyond just making money - when you've built a culture that makes a distinctive contribution while delivering exceptional results - why would you capitulate to the forces mediocrity and succumb to irrelevance?

"And why would you give up on the idea that you can create something that not only lasts but deserves to last? The best corporate leaders never point out the window to blame external conditions; they look in the mirror and say 'we are responsible for our results'."

Leaders who claim credit for good things and dodge blame for the bad "simply do not deserve to lead our institutions".

Now, the temptation at this time of the year - relaxed and recently soaked by media coverage of looming Australasian beatifications - is to raise our Prime Minister to even greater heights of sainthood than his popularity ratings currently imply. That would be unwise.

However, there is in Key's style - humble, gentle, willing to be wrong, but absolutely certain that New Zealand is a country that, in Jim Collins's words, "deserves to last" because of all that it has built already - something of the Level 5 leader lurking.

Yes, there are the "smiling assassin" anecdotes from his time in merchant banking. But no one said great leaders don't sometimes make unpopular decisions. And yes, there are plenty of anecdotes that suggest Key is very much in love with being popular - a trait which leads to a lot of vague disquiet amongst the chatterati that he's "pragmatic", "unable to be bold", and so forth.

Ignore for a moment that such criticisms are uttered with great consistency by people who often have completely different ideas as to what such "boldness" should look like. More often than not, such critics find they agree only on the glib dismissal, while their versions of the right answer turn out to be poles apart.

Ignore for the moment too the possibility that Key's instinctive capacity to connect politically may simply be proof that he's just another corporate psychopath, humouring all audiences while doing exactly what he wants.

Although how many sociopathic leaders would stare down the overwhelming results of the smacking referendum to side with children instead, or welcome with a relaxed flap of the hand at a press conference the flying of a Maori separatist flag as a sign of maturing race relations? These are the actions of a leader confident of his own values, while no doubt cognisant of the fact that he is unhinging much of his own support base.

They are certainly the actions of a leader confident of his mandate to make the call. Just as he is also a leader who has no apparent desire to shut down either lame or pointed question lines from the Press Gallery in the way that most Prime Ministers before him have always sought to do.

Of course, Key may only be a Level 4 leader - the highly effective inspirer to a vision - a status that Helen Clark came close to achieving although the "vision thing" was elusive to her.

Maybe he's, God forbid, only a Level 3, a "competent manager", which is almost how Clark described herself. The only thing we can be sure of is that he's more than Level 1 or 2: either a "highly capable individual" or a "contributing team member". Being in charge of the place gets him out of jail on those two.

Not that the world would go round if there weren't plenty of Level 1 and 2 leaders, especially given how many Level Zeros there are out there: the clock-watchers, the plotters, the congenitally dyspeptic,m the bored. (I made this last category up - Jim Collins doesn't even mention them).

Call it a New Year's fantasy, or just a slender concept holding together the first column of the year at the end of the silly season.

But countries, unlike companies, do tend to endure. And some of them are worth the effort. And New Zealand is one of those countries.

As Key seeks this year to move on from doing a reasonable job of handling the global financial crisis and tries to do a reasonable job of helping New Zealand be more like what it could be, why not start on a positive not?. After all, the one thing every Level 5 leader knows is that they're only as good as the people around them.

(BusinessWire) 18:14:07

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