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opinion

Madonna King: Reputations years in the making, destroyed by one bad decision

Luis Rubiales' kiss on Jenni Hermoso, and his refusal to stand down, has triggered public outrage.

Luis Rubiales' kiss on Jenni Hermoso, and his refusal to stand down, has triggered public outrage. Photo: Getty/TND

What might Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales, former prime minister Scott Morrison and outgoing reserve bank governor Philip Lowe have in common?

Perhaps the one lousy decision each made that will forever mar any leadership legacy; a moment in time, among a million others, that will stand out as that word, or sentence or decision that trumps years or even decades of work.

You might add others too. Take former business big Bernie Brookes, for example. Or former James Hardie chair Meredith Hellicar – and perhaps even Alan Joyce too. (Although some will argue his leadership legacy is coloured by more than one bad decision).

The bottom line is that it’s a telling reminder of how hard reputations are to build – years of work and practice and courses and weekends and leadership opportunities are involved.

And that time is inversely proportionate to how long it takes a reputation to be lost: Just seconds.

By any assessment, Dr Lowe’s stewardship of our central bank ran like clockwork for seven years. He did what his role required: To raise interest rates to bring inflation under control, with one eye fixed on employment.

But one comment, a suggestion really, will be centre of any analysis of his leadership: A single statement that interest rates would most likely stay fixed near zero until 2024.

That statement, given his stature and position, drove thousands of people to take out, or increase, loans.

Many of those same people now find themselves caught in a mortgage rate spiral that has stolen the lives they planned, Philip Lowe has found an unforgiving public, despite the enormous amount of good work that bookended that comment.

It’s not a phenomenon owned by business. The Spanish football federation, on the back of its players’ awesome World Cup win, could have been seen as a contributor to their success.

We could be studying how they encourage football early, or the reasons for their high participation rates, coaching strategies and even funding models. And we could also be celebrating the awesome sporting prowess of a team of true champions.

And we should be. Instead, the team’s win has been erased in public debate by a single, horrible and unwelcome kiss; a non-consensual act that has stolen focus away from a sporting win, and directed it towards an appalling culture that sits behind it.

Of course it’s valuable that we see that unequal, unfair and sexist system in need of change. But just imagine if that ugly three seconds didn’t happen – and how it will now headline the Spanish federation, no matter what it does into the future.

Many readers will argue that Scott Morrison’s leadership is a story of poor decisions, but the one that punters will remember with excruciating detail is that single comment as PM, delivered while bushfires destroyed our homes and our hearts.

‘‘I don’t hold a hose, mate.’’

Six words. Arguably his government would have been given the boot anyway, but that sentence sharpened our shoes and provided a run-up.

The lament by Myer’s Bernie Brookes that the NDIS levy would hurt retail sales prompted a social media pile-on, hurt the company and wrote the headline chapter in his career.

Years and years earlier, James Hardie chair Meredith Hellicar had a similar hard landing over what was seen as a stellar lack of empathy in her approach to asbestos victims.

I remember Bob Hawke’s ‘no child will live in poverty by 1990’, and Paul Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’. And Bill Clinton’s claim that he did not have “sexual relations with that woman’’ too.

Former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain will always be attached to his ‘peace for our time’ declaration, before it was repudiated by Hitler.

One sentence. One comment. Sometimes driven by ignorance. Sometimes driven by ego. But the result is the same.

How can such a simple lesson be so hard to learn?

Alan Joyce’s 22-year-tenure as he departs the Qantas premium lounge is at the centre of this week’s leadership debates.

His 15 years at the helm brought fat profits [and losses] and he weathered a pandemic that ended many businesses. He also forged strategic partnerships, and built and maintained an enviable safety record. Joyce led corporate Australia into support for same-sex marriage too.

But that’s been buried, under criticism of alleged selling of seats on cancelled flights and holding onto hundreds of millions of dollars in flight credits. That’s how many will describe his leadership tenure.

Those behind the No campaign are claiming the referendum will be Anthony Albanese’s moment; that his election night announcement was a stellar example of wedge politics aimed more at making it difficult for Peter Dutton than the pursuit of a fair Australia.

That might be unfair. But for this referendum not to come down to two words – a ‘Yes or a No’ or a ‘for or an against’ – Anthony Albanese has to do better than a few words on election night.

He has to really fight for it. The results, either way, will be part of his leadership legacy.

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