Leadership

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Everybody says they want strong leadership from our prime ministers and presidents. But what do they mean by that? Some want a command and control approach while others see that as authoritarian and dangerous (can you say fascist?). They prefer team leaders, a first among equals who consults widely and only acts when a consensus emerges. They are dismissed as dithering snowflakes. And the division is largely on generational lines.

This came crystal clear during a chat I had over lunch with old political friends. And when I say old, I mean I was the youngest person there. The topic of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott came up and we all agreed it had been a serious matter. Then one of the women asked: Why the hell didn’t Trudeau throw them out of caucus sooner? Why did he let them continue to say they had no confidence in him? It made him look weak.

It was in fact quite unprecedented. No Canadian Prime Minister I can think of would have tolerated what those two former Cabinet Ministers said and did. Harper, Chretien, even the great ditherer Martin would have dumped them from caucus forthwith. And it is not as if Trudeau has not been precipitous in dropping people from Cabinet and caucus—he did it to four men (2 were expelled and 2 left “voluntarily”) as soon as a whiff of sexual impropriety arose.

But this was different. Two high-profile women, potential future leaders, had, for whatever reasons (and I am not quite inclined to fully believe either side as to what those reasons were), turned on the government, in some cases testifying—but never quite delivering the killing blow but always promising more to come—and in others giving damaging interviews to major media outlets (though again filled more with innuendo than actual evidence). One refused to show up for votes in the house that could have brought the government down; the other secretly taped a senior public servant and then released the tape without consulting him. Still, the PM did not act, continued to say the caucus welcomed diverse views.

The turning point came when Philpott came to caucus to, according to some, say a mea culpa and try to walk back on her interview in MacLean’s. The caucus listened—though apparently not very politely—and she quickly made an exit. The Prime Minister—who swore when he assumed the leadership that there would be no repetition of the old Chretien/Martin internal party wars—had what he wanted. Where previously, a significant fraction of the caucus was prepared to continue to support the membership of the dissidents in their party, now, to a man and woman, they had had enough. No vote was held, because the Liberal caucus had never agreed on that procedure for dealing with caucus membership (and remember those who left unwillingly—no vote being held). And no one was willing to risk the recently achieved unity by demanding one.

The next day, the two MPs became independents. While one has talked about running for another party, the other has not indicated her intent. My prediction: after the October election, we will never see them on a national stage again. History, and the way the electorate actually decides who to vote for (hint: it is almost never due to the local candidate’s popularity), is certainly not on their side.

In the meantime, the unfortunate PM is dismissed as weak by one side and unfair by others, even though he acted in a manner quite consistent to the way he had promised to act, the way most of his generation want their leaders to act. Well, we all get to judge next October.

And that’s ten minutes.

Rock Stars

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A recent article called into question the “progressive” agenda of the new leader of Ireland. Young, good-looking, openly gay and of mixed race, his election as Taoiseach (leader) was hailed as step into modernity for the people of Ireland. Certainly, Ireland seems ready for such a move, having recently approved gay marriage despite the opposition of the Church and many conservative politicians.

Yet, the policies of Leo Varadkar remain decidedly neoliberal in most areas and his support for women in a decidedly patriarchal and Catholic state has been called into question. How could this have possibly happened?

Well, give your head a shake. Varadkar was elected head of a centre-right political party, having been a long time member and MP. This didn’t happen by accident. He was elected leader not because he was gay and mixed-race but despite of it. Party members selected him (he has yet to face the people in an election) because he shared their values: more progressive on a few things but generally a conservative at heart.

Why do progressives fool themselves into thinking that politicians are equally progressive when it is clear that they are not? Certainly the fact they are better than the alternatives is a factor but I also put it down to the “rock star” factor.

We have a tendency to see certain kind of people – young (but not too young), good looking, energetic and athletic, well-spoken but not snooty—as somehow imbued with the royal jelly. They have a quality—often undefinable—that makes us see them as more than they are. While anyone who gets to be leader of a country or even a political party is a cut above average, they are still human, with human limitations. Not only that, they are also exactly who they appear to be; exactly who they’ve always been—no matter what shine they try to put on it.

The same can be said of France’s new president—elected as much to keep the ultra-right Le Pen out of office as for any other reason. Macron was viewed as a fresh face and a new approach and, even, by some, though certainly not by all, on the French left as progressive and forward-thinking. That was before he announced that he wanted to govern France like the god Jupiter. Yet, the president is exactly what he has always been, what he showed himself to be as a Minister (who quit in a huff) in the previous socialist government: a market-oriented liberal with some progressive views and a decidedly neo-liberal bent.

The same might be said of Canada’s own Justin Trudeau. I voted for him and generally like him but my vote was based on “he was better than the alternative” –including the party of the left at that time. While by nature and inclination a democratic socialist, I wanted Harper out and Trudeau was the best bet to do it when Election Day came.

But I was never under the illusion that he was left-wing or even slightly more than left of centre. He is a liberal with progressive views on some issues (women, indigenous people and the role of science) and very pro-market liberal views on taxation and, I suspect, the environment. But he looks like a rock star and still seems better than the alternatives. Though that may change if we actually get a leader who was a rock star.

Of course, the United States doesn’t suffer from this problem. Few of their current leaders or potential leaders have rock star qualities. They best they have to offer the public is reality-show bozos and aging hippies. But don’t worry – I’m sure Americans will find their own shining political star to lead them on and let them down.

And that’s ten minutes.

Second Fiddle

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There are people who crave the limelight, who always have to be in the forefront, the leader of the pack. We’ve all seen them, pretending to listen to others while waiting their turn to dominate the conversation. Men are particularly noted for this behavior but I’ve known a few women with the exact same trait.

Some people are suited for leadership I’m sure—though not nearly as many who seem to think so. In fact, a lot of people (again mainly men) seem to think they are better than they are. But the sad truth is; they are seldom as good as they think they are.

Personally, having tried to move to the forefront in my youth, I long ago came to the conclusion I’d rather be the second fiddle. When offered the position on a board I’m more often to take the job of treasurer or secretary than president. The best job of all is vice-president because, really, you don’t have to do anything at all except hope that nothing bad happens to the president.

I have had the lead from time to time—I was a federal candidate twice, though I learned from that experience the candidate is often the least important person in the campaign. They pretty much do what the campaign manager or the party HQ tell them to do—mostly smile, shake hands and not stumble of the talking points.

I also was once the bureaucratic head of an arts education organization—which meant I had to run the thing on a day to day basis but never actually made any policy decisions. Though I gave a lot of advice. That, in fact, is what I’ve proven best at: giving advice, laying out options and then doing whatever the decision makers tell me to do. If you do it well, and I generally did, you can control a lot of the action without having to take much heat if things went wrong. No credit, of course, but you hardly need fame if they pay you well enough.

Maybe that’s why I preferred being a director to being an actor—a lot of control over the final product but it wasn’t my naked ass out there on the stage when the show didn’t go well. In a similar way, I sort of prefer being an editor to being an author—though in that case it’s not as definitive (I like telling my own stories). As an editor, I give a lot of advice and sometimes the writers take it and sometimes they don’t. In the end if the story or novel falls on its face it will be the author who takes the blame. Of course, if you help make it turn out brilliantly, all you can expect is a mention in the acknowledgements and maybe in the acceptance speech when they get the award.

Ultimately, all human endeavours are a team effort no matter what those at the top may think. As a friend of mine likes to say: the graveyards are full of indispensable people. While everyone—especially those who think of themselves as natural born leaders—would like to think they are like George Bailey and the world would be a worse place if they had never been born, the sad truth is that most of us would disappear without a trace and the world would go its way with hardly a ripple.

At least when you play second fiddle you don’t suffer from delusions of grandeur and that has to be worth something, right?

And that’s ten minutes.