Essential Elements of Leadership


“Conviction and compromise” – those are the two essential elements of leadership, according to Australia’s longest serving living former Prime Minister.

In his more than 11 years in power, John Howard was not really a darling of the business community. He did not grab their imagination in the same way some others did. But he earned their respect. Why? Because of his clear conviction and his dogged determination.

And yet, he nominates compromise as the other essential ingredient of good leadership.

To me this is a great lesson in business life, and one which applies especially in the franchise sector. There is a temptation to believe that the best leaders are the ones who have unswerving commitment to ideals and goals; people who cannot be taken off course by others attempting to influence their direction. Mr Howard’s view is that the best leaders are willing to hear other views – to actively listen to alternative views.

That observation is so relevant in franchising. In contrast to the sometimes ‘dog-eat-dog’ attitudes in the corporate world, franchising is dependent on good relationship management – from both franchisor and franchisee perspective. And all people in romantic relationships know that if your partner doubts you are genuinely listening to them, and considering their views, you are in for a very bumpy ride.

That is where compromise comes in. A good leader must have a willingness to sometimes cede ground – to pick the battles that really matter and be prepared to compromise on others.

Of course, once the views have been heard and the options considered, it is then time for firm decision making.

Mr Howard told the recent Franchise Council of Australia national convention that when he led the Cabinet decision for Australia to support the invasion of Iraq, there was only eight per cent public approval. Yet, he had listened, considered all the views and was convinced it was the right thing to do. So the decision was made.

The task was then to bring the people with him and the Government.

At this point, Mr Howard says, it is essential to make sure you surround yourself with the right people. The right people have to be at the consideration table to ensure the best information is presented for consideration. However, they may not be the same people to carry the campaign forward. The deciders may not be the communicators and the doers, but some commonality is essential to ensure a sense of ownership and implementation responsibility.

Mr Howard’s final piece of leadership advice was specific to communication (and therefore marketing, in the business sense): “Know your audience,” he said.

“If you are in Texas, tread warily on the topic of gun control,” he said referring to a chilly conversation he once had in the presence of former US President George Bush Snr.

“I was very proud of our achievements on gun control in Australia, and especially the very successful gun return amnesty program,” Mr Howard said. “But Texas may not have been the best State in the US in which to proudly declare this…”

Mr Howard was also proud of his Government’s encouragement of small business ownership. “Ten years ago, the number of people owning a small business surpassed the number of people who were members of a union,” he said.

It took firm leadership to tackle the union grip on many aspects of Australia’s industrial plant, especially in construction and on the waterfront.

While some pundits put Mr Howard’s loss of power down to his policies and attitudes on industrial relations and climate change, he said the leadership test meant he had to remain firm.

He had listened to all opinions on both topics and was convinced his Government was adopting the right approach at the time he was deposed.

Since the impact of the global financial crisis, he believes the public view has been gradually shifting back toward his Government’s stance on both issues.

“At the time we lost the election, our top three people in Government had each been in their positions for more than 11 years. That is an awfully long time in politics – the only time it has happened since Federation– and I believe that was the biggest factor in our losing the election,” Mr Howard said.

Current policies on industrial relations and climate change were hurting the nation, and it was time to return to the debate with new ideas about technology and innovation solutions, he said.

John Winston Howard: Still showing conviction, but ready to listen; a fine legacy in itself.