With a doctorate in philosophy and religion from an American university he headed New Zealand's leading technical tertiary institution for 20 years. He taught ethics here and overseas, has been chaplain at the University of Auckland, a peace movement activist, and Labour Party candidate and, more recently, a member of the Business Roundtable-inspired Education Forum.
It is widely accepted that AUT owes far more to the vision and leadership skills of one man than is usually the case. In an era when tenure at the top of tertiary institutions is often short and troubled, John Hinchcliff has led the Auckland Technical Institute (ATI) to enhanced status as the Auckland Institute of Technology (AIT) and then on the long, bruising road to university status.
And he has done so quoting philosophers from Aristotle to Kant, Nietzsche and beyond, rather than roll projections and building plans. Moreover, John Hinchcliff has consciously developed a leadership style with many elements other CEOs could study to their and their companies' advantage.
AUT with its 25,000 students, 1500 staff and annual turnover of almost $200 million is big business in anybody's terms, but 'Dr John', as he is affectionately known, has run the burgeoning organisation in his own, quite singular way.
Hinchcliff believes there is no simple solution to successful leadership or management of an organisation or company.
In his 1997 book Values Integrating Education he did not mince words about "those dreaded TLAs or 'Three Letter Acronyms' with which scholars, gurus and consultants have regaled us, seeking to earn their fame and fortune by cajoling us into swallowing their expensive elixir in return for the promise of managerial Nirvana". It is a long list including LRP, ZBB, TQM and MCI.
"These are all useful ideas in a limited sense, but it's been endemic through the western world that if you follow this or that formula you'll succeed." It's based on the belief, Hinchcliff says, that you can follow clear and distinct ideas, in a lineal progression to rational conclusions.
"But, of course, life in or out of an organisation isn't like that," he says. "The chaos theory is much closer to the mark: whenever you make a decision there is a cascading series of effects which can go in different directions and you can never be quite sure of outcomes."
This necessitates a flexibility of thinking, and an ability to make quick changes, that too few organisations are equipped to do. "Leadership is both complex and context-dependent, and the context in which business is conducted is constantly changing," he says. "Chaos theory says that life is different and unusual and that people who are free to ride the next Wave, the new tsunami, the new challenge that comes along will succeed best in the long run." If a CEO is strongly aligned to a particular management approach and all your senior staff have the same mindset, like ducks in a row, and the context changes slightly, as it's bound to do, then there can be problems in coping with change."
There is a perception that strength is a CEO virtue. The CEO who is strong, has all the answers, and can reduce everything to simple slogans has been an admired model, John Hinchcliff has a different view:
"The more powerful you are as a leader the more power you can give away."
It is a fundamental Hinchcliff belief that leadership involves an amalgam of skills that, by definition, it is almost impossible for any individual to exhibit with equal ability. Discuss leadership with John Hinchcliff and he ticks off four vital aspects: administrative ability, political flair, personal skills, and the philosophical dimension. "Administratively, there's the need to operate efficiently, balance the books, approach everything logically; politically, it's important to be able to advocate strongly outside for your organisation and retain a cooperative spirit inside it while allocating scarce resources or making other potentially divisive decisions; personal skills range from enabling people to contribute to the best of their ability no matter where they are in the hierarchy to always responding on a personal level; philosophically, it is important for the CEO to have a vision for an organisation and the ability to get others to share in that sense of destiny, purpose and direction. …