BEING AN EFFECTIVE LEADER IN ANY DISCIPLINE is an art, but in politics it comes close to the impossible. Citizens want many things from their politicians, but, their chief desire, by their own admission, is character, a person they can trust. But in politics, a leader learns early on that to get the most support you have to be all things to all people. To have so many sides to you in the effort to woo voters while at the same time being honest and true to yourself is a balance so exquisite and difficult that it’s rarely managed well.
This is what happens when good people go into politics. Coupled with a commitment to serve their country, they have egos and desire to rise in the political establishment and so they do whatever their party leader asks. In their desire to serve the country, the end up slaves to the party. They become purposefully vague in policy in order to cast a large enough net to grab the most votes. In the end we watch in sadness as those who are capable of a healthy respect for others grow to despise those of other parties. Individuals who believe in democratic openness suddenly refuse to show up at political debates, thereby confusing everyone but the most ardent partisans. This narrative is a never-ending cycle in politics.
Now that Canada has entered an era of change and transition unlike anything we’ve seen in decades, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that politics, and elected officials, promise certain things and yet can’t solve our greatest problems. As that trend continues, trust in politicians ebbs, while distrust in their characters and intent grows. Thus frustrated, Canadians yearn for political leaders who are what they say they are.
These next two posts will be about those traits the next PM of Canada will have to exude if trust is to be re-established and if democracy is to be led out of its present doldrums. Here are four traits of character to get us started.
- Be passionate about Canadians, not just your own ideas. This is vital because most voters increasingly feel isolated as everyone else gathers around their party leaders. Political leaders work hard at appearing people friendly. They get tutored on how to wave, who to look at, how to shake hands, and how to appear interested. With citizens presently sensing no one really cares about them, it becomes vital that the next PM actually is interested. Passion is contagious, it’s true, but citizens are increasingly savvy in their instincts about what is genuine and what isn’t. The next PM must get out of the political bubble and into the citizen arena if he hopes to grow the democratic spirit.
- Don’t lose yourself. Probably nothing is more vital than this. Political life is a world of busyness, hyperbole, animosity, patriotism, tribalism, groupies, enemies, and a constant need to get the message out. In such a world, one’s inner compass can be obliterated in a context of spin. Authenticity is your only salvation. Even if you’re successfully elected, your reward will be temporary and the loss to your reputation, your honesty, even your family connections, will leave a permanent imprint. Govern with a clear aura, not a multitude of masks donned for different occasions. People won’t just follow you because you speak well but because you have remained true to your first convictions that you brought into public life.
- Be accountable. This should be obvious, but it becomes a major struggle for any PM. It’s not about being responsible merely to your party, but to Canadians in general. What are their fears? Their hopes? Their convictions? You are responsible to them, not your political hacks or party insiders. And be responsible to your family. They know you and can tell when your head is too big or your spirit too small. I once spoke with a prime minister who told me that, “Canadians are busy and more like sheep and just don’t get it.” Mistake. Big mistake. Nobody who is accountable to others talks like that, even in private. Canadians are your present and your future. If they don’t understand, it’s because you didn’t enlighten them. Or they might be right, but in your bubble you can’t see that.
- Be approachable. In today’s political world, for a PM, approachability is all about media availability and the odd handshake with a supporter. You’ll never understand Canada that way and, worse still, Canadians will never comprehend you as a human being. Welcome criticism if it’s constructive. Open the intriguing world of politics up to average people. Don’t create a world where the only people who are honest with you are the party pollsters. You are the leader of over 30 million people. If your life revolves around coterie of only 30 people, you’re doomed before you even start.
Famed UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, inspired his players before a championship game by saying, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Such instructions shouldn’t merely fall in to the realm of youth, but into the highest political office in the land. If the next PM becomes entranced more with his reputation than his character, then the country itself will suffer the greatest cost and nothing will change.
Tomorrow: 6 more traits to reckon with