The past isn’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, digging up old stories about leaders – business or political – was a difficult, slow, painstaking job.
But this digital world is different.
It’s easy to uncover people from the past, to receive tip-offs, to track documents and press coverage – local and international. In other words, if you think you have closed the lid on a long-distant problem and nailed it shut, think again.
That’s the difficultly facing Prime Minister Julia Gillard. A review of Gillard’s work with a client from the Australian Workers Union, although a matter of issue 17 years ago, is still a live topic.
Issues from the past take many forms, and typically the line of sight to the mistake is:
- Youthful folly or brushes with the law
- Association with a colleague or company that went wrong
- Proximity to a leadership team that made mistakes
- A CV fib that follows you up the ladder
- A company collapse
Some ghosts you can escape; but they are few. In most cases, leaders should be ready for past issues to explode in the present. Typical mistakes that have caught out leaders include:
- Not identifying the potential for damage from a past career or personal issue.
- Failing to inform employers and boards, who also risk damage from past issues becoming public.
- Not preparing a response to media scrutiny (and so blurting out something that can be more damaging).
We take a look into the closet to find the ghosts and the tactics leaders have deployed to bust them.
1. Julia Gillard – Prime Minister and leader of the Labor party
The ghost: Early in her career, Julia Gillard was a partner at the law firm, Slater & Gordon. She quit as a partner of the firm in the mid-1990s. A former partner of the same firm has now alleged that Gillard quit after an internal review of her work for “allegedly corrupt former Australian Workers Union leader Bruce Wilson – her then-partner as well as her client” says a report in the Australian Financial Review. There is no evidence to suggest the PM did anything wrong, however.
The response: Shut down
Gillard has said on previous occasions that she did nothing wrong and the matter was dealt with publicly at the time.
When this issue was raised again over the weekend, she sought to shut down the discussion, pointing out that no specific allegations about her behaviour had been made. It’s a difficult strategy in the digital age, where online discussions of the matter are running hot, and Gillard acknowledged that whatever statement she made, the online campaign about the issue would continue.
2. Michael Quigley – Chief executive, National Broadband Network
The ghost: NBN chief Michael Quigley’s former employer, Alcatel Lucent, was the subject of an investigation in 2004 into corruption allegations at its Costa Rican operations that led to an Alcatel executive being jailed in Costa Rica for corruption.
Quigley was a former president and chief operating officer of Alcatel at the time, leaving in 2007, and joining the NBN in 2009.
Response: Full disclosure
Quigley initially blamed the corruption on “two rogue employees” but chose to explain his role in more detail to The Australian newspaper ahead of an appearance before a Senate estimates committee last year. In the paper, he continued to maintain that he had done nothing wrong, but told the paper had made “several errors in public statements about his knowledge and responsibility for the scandal”.