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Fear of flying?

By Jeff Schubert - posted Wednesday, 6 April 2011

In an article in The Australian newspaper on 23 March, 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 (large population growth) and then dropped the rhetoric. She partly re-regulated the labor market and then paraded as a pro-market reformer.”

Kelly concludes that: “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 in his book, “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”.

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.” 

Dixon noted that a “distinction that has been drawn between ‘irrational’ authoritarianism (as dealt with in his book) and so-called ‘rational’ authoritarianism. By the latter is meant the readiness to accept and obey the dictates of rational authority." For so-called 'rational authoritarianism' Dixon prefered the phrase ‘autocratic behaviour’. "Whereas the autocrat exercises tight control when the situation demands it, the authoritarian is himself tightly controlled, no matter what the external situation.”


As an example, Dixon wrote of Napoleon Bonaparte: “The evidence suggests that though he was ambitious, ruthless, devious, unscrupulous, grandiose, despotic, Machiavellian, dictatorial and autocratic, he was not authoritarian. … Napoleon’s peace of mind did not depend upon the authoritarian defence of structuring his social environment into in-groups and out-groups.”


I have never met Gillard, and do not know a lot about her. But what I do know -- from articles by Kelly and others – suggests that Gillard has a lot in common with an “irrational authoritarian”, or simply (on Dixon’s preferred terminology) an “authoritarian”.

Let’s try to look at Gillard more closely.


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About the Author

Jeff Schubert is an economist, business consultant and writer. He is author of Dictatorial CEOs and their Lieutenants: Inside the Executive Suites of Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao. He is a regular commentator on Russian affairs and now lives in Moscow. Jeff is also the creator of The Little Pink Ant. His websites are: and The also blogs about Russia at

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