Lee Iacocca

Lee Iacocca - Henry Ford simply didn't "like him" - that was enough.

Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca was famously head of both Ford and then Chrysler after he was fired by Henry Ford II – grandson of the founder of the company – despite being probably the most successful Ford executive of all time – with the simple words “I just don’t like you.”

At the time, the move shocked the automotive world and the world of commerce generally. It was widely seen as a foolish move by Ford. But I have a great deal of sympathy with the decision.

Life is just too short to spend time working with people you “just don’t like”.

At the heart of such antipathy always lays other factors – unspoken perhaps – such as incompatibility on personal, ethical or business values, lack of trust, lack of mutual respect, and so on. The stress that results from accommodating such deeply felt emotions is rarely, if ever, worth the effort, for either protagonist.

I have have left jobs, and resigned business rather than keep working on it, no matter how lucrative the position or contract, because of an essential loss of confidence in the key players. Not capriciously – I am no tantrum-throwing diva – but thoughtfully, having weighed my deeper feelings against all other factors. And I have never once regretted the decision.

In today’s caucus vote, Kevin Rudd finally discovered, crunchingly, what it is like when “people just don’t like you”.

Despite opinion polls showing he would be more likely to defeat the Liberals at the next election, and that he was hugely more popular with the general public than Prime Minister Gillard, he was not just defeated, he was roundly and thoroughly rejected. In the end, despite the Rudd camp’s spin, Gillard won the ballot 71 votes to 31.

In the news coverage of the last three days, cabinet minister after cabinet minister lined up to tell us, in excruciating and exhaustive detail, why Kevin Rudd was just one small step up from the anti-Christ. Either explicitly or by implication they branded him as dysfunctional, domineering, rude, non-consulting, mercurial, and borderline egomaniacal. As somebody has already tweeted to me, it’s a shame the Oscars don’t have a statuette for best soap opera, because The Public Murder of Kevin Rudd (Part Two) would have won hands down.

Rudd tears

Politicians love to be loved. It's a big mistake to forget that in a party-based system the love you need most is not the public's, but your colleagues'. The same is true in business. And families. If we can't keep the affection of those closest to us, then what everyone else thinks won't save us. Rudd is seen here after the leadership "coup" in 2010.

You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Perhaps.

It’s no doubt a hard lesson for Rudd to learn, because by all accounts he’s been avoiding learning it for his whole career. He was apparently widely disliked when he was an effective senior civil servant in Queensland. In a business not noted for shrinking violets, he was labelled as a pushy, self-aggrandising little oik long before the Labor caucus grudgingly turned to him as their best hope to overturn John Howard in ’07. They tolerated him, biting down on their bile. Then as soon as they thought things were going wrong they dumped him so fast, and so hard, that the public were shocked. But if the public had known how much they didn’t like him in the first place it would have come as no surprise at all.

Of course, admitting that would have been to admit that they had wrought a huge con on the Australian public at the election, so that wasn’t on.

As a result the public was left confused and resentful.

But Rudd should have been left in no doubt what he’d done wrong. Labor caucus members certainly knew. Instead, if we are to believe his public utterances, he chose to re-make reality in his head, (and so did his advisors), and interpret his overturning by Gillard as merely the result of factional brawling and the ambitions of so-called faceless men, and the perfidy of his deputy.

My old Mum would have said “there’s none so blind as those who will not see.”

(Incidentally, in retrospect, the 2007 election, which was then and is still now often widely referred to as a triumph for Rudd’s campaigning skills, would probably have been won by a drover’s dog with a Labor rosette – the punters were simply sick of Howard’s smug little face. But that’s a different discussion.)

This is the lesson. It’s not how smart you are. It’s how likeable you are.

Likeability

Likeability ... it's always there, shadowing us, and it determines our success.

The short story is that there comes a point at which you can’t keep alienating the people near you and then expect them to support you, no matter how competent you may be, (and no one denies that Rudd has talents), because when push comes to shove if we’re going to put our trust in someone it has to be someone, at gut level, that we like.

A Columbia University study by Melinda Tamkins shows that success in the workplace is guaranteed not by what or whom you know but by your popularity.

In her study, Tamkins found that, “popular workers were seen as trustworthy, motivated, serious, decisive and hardworking and were recommended for fast-track promotion and generous pay increases.

Their less-liked colleagues were perceived as arrogant, conniving and manipulative. Pay rises and promotions were ruled out regardless of their academic background or professional qualifications.” Ouch.

The Gallup organization has conducted a personality factor poll prior to every presidential election since 1960. Only one of three factors – issues, party affiliation, and likeability – has been a consistent prognosticator of the final election result.  Of course, the factor is likeability. (Note that Obama is effortlessly more likeable than any of the Republican candidates still standing, except perhaps Ron Paul, who is widely considered mildly nuts.)

Think none of this affects you because you’re not in business or politics? Nu-uh.

Doctors give more time to patients they like and less to those they don’t. According to a 1984 University of California study, there were significant differences in treatment, depending on the characteristics of the patient: the combination of likeable and competent was significant.  Patients perceived as likeable and competent would be encouraged significantly more often to telephone and to return more frequently for follow-up than would the patients who were either unlikable and competent or likeable and incompetent. The staff would educate the likeable patients significantly more often than they would the unlikable patients.”

In a survey of twenty-five hospital doctors initiated by Roy Meadow, a pediatrician at St. James’s University Hospital in Leeds, England, researchers studied what happens when both likeable and unlikable parents bring in children. Considering what you’ve already learned about likeability, it’s not surprising that children with likeable parents received better health care and were more likely to receive follow-up appointments.

I’m guessing the same can be said of schools.

Sooner or later, history shows us that the vast majority of disliked people come a cropper. Being liked is simply a pre-requisite for success, in all spheres of life. I am sure we can all think of contrary examples where fear, for example, was enough to keep the troops in check, but I am obviously speaking in broad brushtrokes here. In a future article, I will rehearse some of the components of likeability, because the good news is that they are skills that can be learned, not innate abilities.

We don’t just have to be grinning, amiable idiots all the time.

Readers will note that I isolate likeability as the key survival factor: I do not say “being agreed with”. We can disagree with people and still like them. In fact, the opposite is true: good governance, in business and politics, demands that we disagree with people when we genuinely perceive risk in their opinion or behaviour.

But the Labor caucus didn’t just disagree with Kevin Rudd – in fact, ironically, many of them may have agreed with his essential analysis, which is that Gillard cannot beat Tony Abbott – although in my view, the jury is still out on that, as I have lived long enough to know that if a week is a long time in politics then 18 months is a lifetime and a half. No, it was about much more than whether they agreed or disagreed with him.

These people, who take their opinions from having actually met the guy – worked with him, dined with him, drunk with him, walked with him, sat in cars with him – unfiltered through spin doctors and media appearances – actually loathed him so much that they would rather struggle on with the Government’s current level of performance than return to the smiling Milky Bar Kid, even if the cost was their own seat in Parliament.

Now that’s disliking someone.

A public suicide. Messy, sad, and ugly.

I never thought Kevin Rudd was ever going to beat Julia Gillard today – that was the genius of the Gillard camp in forcing his hand and bringing the spill on, by letting a rumour getting about that he was about to be sacked anyway – but it was almost as if, in the last few days, Rudd was intent on some sort of phyrric suicidal exit on his own terms.

He was determined to face down those who didn’t like him, by virtually ignoring them and appealing over their heads to the public. “Ring your local MP and tell him or her you want me back” he said (I paraphrase) instead of simply picking up the phone and calling the MPs concerned and having a good chat.

He was never going to get enough votes – he must have known that in advance, surely? – but he could have perhaps reserved his place in Labor history and even partially rehabilitated himself if he had gone down the road of “Mea culpa, I stuffed it up last time, how can I do it right for you this time?” and actually meant it.

Instead, by pressing the flesh in shopping malls and working the ever-hungry meeja for all it was worth, Rudd merely confirmed Labor MPs suspicions. He didn’t really think he’d made any mistakes at all, despite a few mealy-mouthed mumblings to that effect on TV. And he also he left an abiding impression: “this bloke doesn’t like me, need me, respect me, or want me. Righty ho, he can have that back, in spades. I’m voting for Gillard, even if that does mean I am a turkey voting for Christmas.”

As a serious political force in Australia, Rudd is now finished. There will be no Lazarus rising, not even Lazarus twitching. I expect to see him foisted on the international community in some major role – or at some serious policy wonk think tank – as soon as he can pull the levers of his impeccable overseas contacts, especially in America and China. The ALP will ease his way, glad to see the back of someone that they never really believed was one of their own. As Paul Keating once remarked, “He’s Labor, but not tribal Labor.” In the end, that’s what killed him: he just never really wanted to be one of the tribe, or was prepared to work at it, and they hated him for it.

Well, well. Moving on: Gillard will get a small bounce from her success today – in the last few days voters will have re-connected with her, grudgingly, with her guts, determination, refusal to get flustered, and inner steel.

All smiles - Gillard leaves the caucus meeting.

All smiles - Gillard leaves the caucus meeting. But what of tomorrow?

These are qualities we value in a Prime Minister, and Gillard, despite other failings, has them. But she now needs to learn Rudd’s lesson. She is widely disliked – mistrusted – and this time by the public. And they will be meeting in their very own caucus before too long. Many of Rudd’s criticisms of her will have rung true with people, even as they admire the way she stood up for herself. She has a tiny window of opportunity – which will start closing immediately – to radically re-make her government.

For example, she won’t – but she should – build on her new-found image of decisiveness by removing Wayne Swann as Treasurer, because although he is her ally and he is also technically competent he inspires no confidence whatsoever in the public in the second most important office in the land.

A dramatic, bold move would be to promote Swann’s mate Stephen Smith to Treasury – his quiet, serious demeanour goes over well and he has proven himself a highly effective Minister – and move Swann to Foreign Affairs, where he will still be in the inner circle, and can’t really do much damage, and where he already has good contacts to build on. Refresh, renew, revive. Show imagination. Show leadership.

Gillard

Can Gillard be saved from herself?

And most of all, she should employ new speechwriters, and professional speaking consultants, to utterly transform her dreadful, whining, monotonic delivery of both formal speeches and her performances in the Parliament.

It is always hard for pollies to hear this, (I speak from experience), but the public has long since gone past their gentle amusement at how staggeringly irritating her delivery is, to reach a point of genuine annoyance. Quite apart from any policy disagreements or trust issues, her flat, nasal tones, distractingly repetitive and unhelpful hand movements, lack of light and shade, and holier than thou seriousness make her genuinely disliked.

When the usual answer to the question “Would you have this person round for a beer and a sausage?” is derisive laughter, then you’re in real trouble. When you’re a politician, it’s terminal.

Frankly, I worry about the state of our public discourse in general. Because it’s not as though the other side are much better.

The widespread opinion amongst those I speak to – including Liberal supporters – is that Abbot is an unpleasant little blow-hard, transparently seizing any opportunity to personally denigrate the leaders of the Labor Party and to talk the country down. That this is a common mis-conception of the role of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is no excuse for the policy vacuum that the Coalition currently offers, and the apparent vacuum in the heads of most of its leaders. As I have said before, if Gillard does anything right at all in the next six months, expect to see Abbott replaced with Malcolm Turnbull, quick smart.

And the final wash up?

The ultimate question, I suppose, is this: in a country full of well-educated, intelligent, hard-working, charismatic people, why are we led by such donkeys? And when will we demand better of our leaders, rather than just grumble ineffectively about them? What is it that we are doing wrong, if, as I firmly believe, we get the politicians we deserve?

On May 17, 2007, when he was all of 83 years old, Iacocca published a book called Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, co-written with Catherine Whitney. An article with the same title, and same two co-authors, has recently been published. As we leave the circus of the last week behind us, there are wise words in it for all Australians to consider today. In the book, talking about the quality of Government in America at all levels, Iacocca wrote:

“Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, “Stay the course.” Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I’ll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!”
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Comments
  1. simon ondaatje says:

    Yolly, I think you’ve only got half of the picture. The reality is that while Rudd was a horrid little man, he was – and this is what really caused his overthrow – grossly incompetent as the PM. He simply didn’t have the skills to do the job. There are numerous of articles that are emerging that show the ‘real’ reason behind his dumping. The fact that the ALP had to try and ‘spin’ their way out of it only exacerbated the mystery. They should have been upfront and called it straight.

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    • Well, that’s as maybe, Simon, but as the Libs in Question Time are already pointing out, if he was that bad at his job, how come they elected him in the first place, and how come they then made him Foreign Minister? I still think his essential lack of people skills are at the core of the dysfunctionality of his time as PM, and the farce of the last few months. Gillard now needs to step up – the question is, will she?

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  2. Picture this.

    In six months, Tony Abbott walks up to the microphone “Ladies and Gentlemen, after careful consideration, I have decided to step down from my role as Leader of the Opposition. Whilst I still believe that I am more than capable of leading this great nation of ours, after careful consideration with my colleagues, we believe that Malcolm Turnbull is the best person to lead the Liberal Party into the next election and to become Australia’s next Prime Minister. I have accepted the role of Deputy Opposition Leader and will continue to serve the Liberal Party to the best of my ability and will give Malcolm my complete and undivided loyalty.”

    Yeah right…

    Like

    • Yup, that’s not going to happen. If – big if – Gillard gets her stuff together, the hardheads in the Liberal Party will have no compunction about swapping back to the infinitely more popular Turnbull, that’s what I meant.

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