Schubert on Julia Gillard

April 24, 2011

Jeff Schubert examines the behaviours of Australian Premier Julia Gillard and asks whether she fits the psychological profile of an irrational authoritarian.

In an article on 23 March in “The Australian” newspaper, journalist Paul Kelly commented on the attitudes and values of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and on her apparent contradictions and back-flips on policy. Kelly wrote:

“She warned Kevin Rudd (the former prime minister, whom she deposed) against pricing carbon and then seized this policy. She campaigned against a Big Australia (population growth) and then dropped the rhetoric. She partly re-regulated the labor market and then paraded as pro-market reformer … She appears too much as a work in progress. The reason is obvious – Gillard is a Prime Minister under construction. She is engaged in self-discovery, sorting out not just her policy framework but the convictions for which she will live or die. She is not fully formed as a political persona because she got the job too early.”

Yet, there is possible a more basic – and psychological – explanation. On the face of it, Gillard seems to have many of the personal characteristics of someone who has a fear of failure rather than a need to achieve (in comparison, Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, has many of the characteristics of the latter category). The difference was extensively explored by Professor Norman Dixon many years ago in his book, “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”.

Two forms of motivation

Dixon, stressing that he was concerned with primary motivation, rather than secondary motivation, wrote:

“The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarized by saying that whereas the first is buoyed by hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. … The former is associated with the possession of a strong ego and independent attitudes of mind, the latter with a weak ego and feelings of dependency. Whereas the former achieves out of a quest for excellence in his job, the latter achieves by any means available, not necessarily because of any devotion to the work, but because of the status, social approval and reduction of doubts about the self that such achievement brings. Although these two sorts of achievement motivation may bring about rapid, even spectacular, promotion, their nature and effects are very different. The first is healthy and mature, and brings to the fore those skills required by the job at hand; the second is pathological, immature, and developing of traits, such as dishonesty and expediency.”

If we go by the terminology used by Dixon in his book, Gillard would be described as an ‘irrational authoritarian’.

To go more deeply

Jeff has studied the motivation of leaders deeply. He writes regularly for Leaders we deserve. You can read more of his work on his blog site.