Do We Still Love A Bad Boy?


As the Labor Party faces leadership speculation and one political crisis after another, the remains of charismatic leader Ned Kelly have been conclusively identified to great fanfare. What do these leadership stories have to teach us in our current state of political confusion? Do we need to take a firm stand in times of political uncertainty? Do we still love a bad boy? When we’re looking for strong leadership, is there a mid point between sociopath and unconvincing determination?

For 17 years we had a beautiful and terrible cat named Howard. He was ultra muscular, all big up the front section and narrow down the back end, and if you sat in his chair he was likely to sink his teeth into your Achilles’ tendon. If he swatted your hand it left a bruise. If he had been human, he would have met the diagnostic criteria for a sociopath, or as we now call it, someone with an antisocial personality disorder.

Like the recently identified Ned Kelly, also arguably a sociopath, Howard came from difficult circumstances, having been abandoned at our local vet by his bikie owner. Like Ned, his violence was sometimes random and inexcusable, but his need to fight was real. Like Ned, he could be dangerous, and he inspired either fierce hatred or adoration. Howard had a plan and a vision and he stuck to it with ferocity and courage. He was scary and fearless and he was the leader of our household.

The latest American research on sociopathic prevalence estimates that at least one in 25 company directors is a sociopath. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has worked for a corporation, but what we do tend to have trouble owning up to is how much most of us love an arrogant leader. After all, we’re the ones who put them there. I still remember with a tiny frisson of shame my secret delight in 1995 when Keating told a protester to "Go get a job!" Not because of what he said, but because he allowed himself to say it. Arrogant leaders get our attention not simply through wit and chutzpah, but because they allow themselves to say the things we’re too timid to say ourselves.

Ned holds our imagination in part because he had passion, courage and commitment, but also because of his arrogance and charm. We tend to fall for charm and self-centred determination in our leaders, so much so that we often ignore their potential for sociopathology.

Currently neither Julia Gillard nor any of her potential successors adequately fits the bill of the arrogant charmer. And her response to the Government’s latest setback on asylum seeker policy has been neither strong nor arrogant nor charming, but merely reactive and stubborn.

But do we really want more charm and arrogance? Do we need another charismatic leader? As we trawl the catalogue of leadership replacements and dig up the bones of historical figures, filled with nostalgia for a time when the wit flew fast and sharp, are we in danger of nominating or electing a tyrant?

There are all kinds of leaders. Blind, instinctual, false, charismatic, true, responsible. All leadership requires courage, but courage is never enough on its own. Good leaders also have a vision and hold themselves responsible for where that vision will take them and others. When leaders are anxious and afraid to fail, they often neglect their responsibilities. We can see this anxiety in the current spayed responses to climate change and asylum seekers.

When we are desperate to avoid failure and worried about losing power, we become unable or unwilling to face the choices we do have to do things differently, to really lead. Then we respond as our current government has to the present political crises: with a kind of terrifyingly neutered defensiveness. And in the process, it’s the most vulnerable who suffer.

But if we’re looking for a solution to the current floundering, Ned’s ferocity is no help. No return to control, passion, a show of strength or some other version of the fearless leader, so transparently based on lightly disguised cut-outs of traditional masculinity, will rescue us from our current state of failed leadership. We will need to rescue ourselves.

That said, we don’t need to scrap iconic Ned’s leadership qualities altogether. In our search for the strengths we want to help guide us through the difficult political choices on the table, we will need a clear understanding of who the underdogs really are. And we will need emotion.

Deadpan deliveries of important decisions will no longer cut the mustard. Without emotion there is no real care. And without care there is no real responsibility. Without real caring responsibility, we’re left with leaders who either drop the ball or hold onto their own that little bit too tightly. Without emotion we only have a choice between neglect and tyranny. We’ve had some neglect. Let’s not let the pendulum swing back too far in the other direction.

Howard died in 2006 and we buried him in the backyard with a small plaque that has since disappeared in the undergrowth. His remains will stay forever buried I suspect. Following his death, a change swept through the household. We all negotiated the lounge room without fear, and our other cat, cowed for years under his reign, displayed a white mark on her chest we had never noticed before. It took a few days for us to realise that this was because she was holding her head up for the first time.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.