Is New Zealand being managed, rather than led?

28 May 2017
Head and shoulders portrait
Dr Fiona Kennedy

The New Zealand election is still 118 days away and there are two crucial questions: do we need leadership to forge out the next stage of our future; or can we continue with only the prospect of a managed country at the end of this election?

To help answer these questions we need first to note that leadership and management are not at all the same thing. Forbes magazine offers several distinctions between the two including the concept that managers ‘manage’ systems and processes while leaders work with relationships. Another distinction that has interested journalists and scholars since the late 1970s, and sets apart leadership from management, is that leadership is concerned with the ‘management of meaning’.

So what does this mean? Managing meaning is all about creating a framework of experience that can then lead to action. Managing meaning involves drawing on stories and images that capture imagination and bring about change. It involves dropping the managerial language of rationality and statistics and speaking to stories, possibilities, intuition and imagination.

One of the most famous examples of ‘managing meaning’ is Martin Luther’s "I have a Dream" speech where Luther offered a fractured society an inspired view of themselves and helped diverse groups tap into hopes and dreams for a better world on behalf of their children. This speech had a utilitarian objective – to stop the brutal racial divides – and it worked because of the dream motif, a motif that was repeated rhythmically throughout the speech.

The powerful relationship between leadership and managing meaning was illustrated clearly more recently, in two elections, one in the US and one in France. In the US, Preisdent Donald Trump opened up a deep seam of anger and resentment toward career politicians among the white middle class. In ‘straight talk’ language, he framed the experiences of disillusioned voters and told a story about values such as independence and respect for blue collar workers which felt intuitively right to his supporters – regardless of the facts.

In France, newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron also activated the appeal of story and possibility, albeit in a very different manner than Trump. Macron has cast himself as an outsider – as someone who yes, has been on the inside of parliament but only for long enough to reject it. Highly intelligent and a student of philosophy, he uses poetic, metaphoric language and says things such as “there is an empty seat at the heart of French political life”. This is the very opposite of a managerial interpretation of the situation in France. Indeed, voters are signalling they are tired of being managed by career politicians, and the tit-for-tat politicking, on the airwaves and in the corridors of power. Trump and Macron have presented themselves as very different species of maverick leaders and as fresh new starts.

It has been people’s imaginations, as opposed to policies and the experience of a party leader, that won the vote in both scenarios. Trump and Macron’s articulation of the current situation and the stories they have set in motion have fired up hearts and minds for better or for worse.

So what does this mean for New Zealand? We certainly don’t need maverick, stand-alone leaders – but we do need leadership. Our growing child poverty statistics, unaffordable housing, the growing P epidemic, environmental threats and infrastructure limitations, to name a few, are complex issues that need leadership that is experienced, collaborative and that ignites and energises voters’ imaginations, raising excitement rather than resignation as people go to the polls.

And herein is the nub – where is the leadership?

The media has recently addressed the boring nature of New Zealand political leaders. We hear them argue about the real facts, the real statistics, and the real number of low and middle income Kiwis who will benefit from the Budget. But there is very little in the way of lightness, intuition and imagination. By comparison, and in a non-partisan way, we offer the political landscape of David Lange’s youthful Cabinet of the 80s. This cabinet ‘heaved and bubbled like a Rotorua mud pool with new ideas, some equally volcanic’ and catalysed a uniquely New Zealand nuclear-free stance. The nuclear-free policy was not simply about a position, since policies can always be understood on purely managerial terms. It was about the art of managing meaning. The nuclear-free policy lit up imaginations, so that Kiwis began to see themselves in new and powerful ways, as the defiant David to the Goliath of the international stage.

There is still time. Most don’t want a Trump or even a Macron, but we do want leadership. This will require politicians to break out of their heavy, dull rationalist language and start in the work of ‘making meaning’. If they don’t, people will vote dutifully and act passively, feeling over-managed and under-led. The opportunity to engage people’s imaginations and address critical problems for the future of New Zealand will be lost.


Dr Fiona Kennedy is the Leadership Mindset Programmes' lead facilitator, at the New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI), in the University of Auckland's Business School.


Used with permission from NewsroomIs New Zealand being managed, rather than led? published on Sunday 28 May 2017.