The other night we gathered around my laptop and watched a movie about the operation that the Israeli army and secret service undertook in 1976 to free the hostages that were being held at the Entebbe airport in Uganda. The mission, a high-water mark for Israel’s military, was a resounding success. One part of the story that resonated with me was the fact that the only Israeli operative to die was Yonatan Netanyahu, the leader of the operation. Netanyahu, brother of Israel’s current (and, let’s face it, far less heroic) Prime Minister showed the ethos of leadership – he led from the front and paid the ultimate price for doing so.
I was reflecting upon Netanyahu’s heroism recently when watching (and, I have to say, rewatching) the press conference in which David Clark, the erstwhile Minister of Health, threw Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s least likely but best-recognised, sex symbol, under a bus. For anyone who hasn’t seen the performance, Clark was asked whether he took any responsibility for the lapses that occurred in Covid quarantine processes, in particular, the lapses that let quarantining patients out early without being tested.
When questioned about his perspective on whether he should shoulder any responsibility for the issues, Clark was very clear, stating unequivocally that “the Director-General of health takes responsibility for those issues.” When later questioned extensively about his comments across various media, Clark reiterated that testing and quarantining was an operational matter and, hence, he should bear no responsibility for those actions.
Now I get the difference between management and governance. I’m a professional board member and know full-well that there is a line beyond which Governors should not interfere in operational manners. But accepting responsibility is different from inappropriately asserting control. Something Clark seems unable to grasp.
It’s a difficult perspective to stomach. Clark is already perhaps the least liked Minister in New Zealand, and this move did nothing to endear him to his colleagues, the general public or, judging by the face of Dr Bloomfield who was standing a few feet behind Clark when the comments were made, the under-fire DG.
But beyond the ill-advised nature of the comments, Clark made a more fundamental error, that in utterly misunderstanding what leadership is actually about. A few years ago I had the privilege of being awarded the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award. In my conversations around the time, I was forced to think about what leadership means – what is the basic statement one can use to describe at a fundamental basis what leadership is. What I came up with, while not anything earth-shattering, was that “leadership is about giving the credit and taking the blame.” When things are going well, stand back and let ones’ team bask in the glory. But when things are going badly, step up and, in the way that Netanyahu epitomised, take on the hard stuff. Clark wasn’t even close to this, and I suspect his inability to stand by his DG will come back to haunt him.
Of course, the thing that makes this lack of leadership even more bizarre is the fact that, while his boss is displaying how not to be a leader, Ashley Bloomfield is doing exactly the opposite. After all, it’s not like Dr Bloomfield personally let those quarantining patients out or missed giving them Covid tests – there are a huge number of Health Ministry employees who all made mistakes that contributed to the situation. Showing leadership, however, Dr Bloomfield hasn’t mentioned those failings. Rather he stood up and accepted that, as the man in the top chair, he held the responsibility for the errors and omissions.
There are a huge number of Ministry employees who will have seen that and will have further been cemented in their respect and loyalty to their boss. A situation that any leader should aspire to.
Clark, on the other hand, firmly confirmed himself as a slippery operator who will kneecap those around him when he needs to and when he thinks he can get away with it. He may have been standing in front of Bloomfield when he threw him under the bus, but he was doing anything but leading from the front. I know which of those two men I’d like to be leading me in a time of crisis.