The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: democratic dysfunction

Is Leadership Dead?


WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DAYS WHEN LEADERS, through hard work, ingenuity, and personality, could apply themselves to our greatest problems and solve them? Of course there are numerous factors, but the reality remains that our greatest difficulties are hardly matched by visionary leadership. As a society we quibble over minutiae and increments, but the bigger tasks escape us. Our present leadership at varying levels, and to greater or lesser degrees, bears much of the responsibility for that failure.

There is something different about today’s leaders. As with any election season, they continue to offer us boutique initiatives that cater to our self-interest, believing that it’s the best way to attract our attention. Sadly, they are largely correct, but it still doesn’t change the reality that most citizens no longer look to politics for either inspiration or solutions.

Today’s leaders seek to take us to a place that’s manageable or incremental. That’s okay as far as it goes provided that things are progressing smoothly overall. But they’re not, not even close. We don’t know what to do about our lethargy, lower voter turnout, escalating poverty and joblessness, democratic and infrastructure deficits, environmental calamities, even international insecurity.

As our problems become more complex and intractable, it isn’t a good sign when our leaders pride themselves as managers. We require visionaries, risk takers, and truth tellers. Sometimes, especially in seasons of growing crises, we require people to move us to the impossible, not the probable. We need those who will guide us to places that don’t yet exist. We still search for a truly democratic state. We continue to require a space that strikes the adroit balance between prosperity and social accountability. We yearn for education that is increasingly affordable. We need to find that sweet spot balancing individual opportunity and collective responsibility.

We require leaders to take us to places we have never been because, other than the modern awareness of climate change, where they are taking us at the moment is where we have been before. For centuries we sought to escape the trap of poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, powerlessness, elitist privilege, and patriarchal myopia. Civilization is supposed to be about progressively moving beyond such things, not falling back into them.

This is what Vaclav Havel was referring to when, in speaking about leadership, especially in times of great national and global challenge, talked about “the art of the impossible.” Like Mandela, he accomplished what people said couldn’t be done by appealing to their intelligence and sense of social and political awareness. We need leaders who will take us down new paths and who, through their inspiration and belief in the citizenry, teach us how to adapt. We don’t need to be led to a slight alteration, but to our better selves.

In real terms, today’s leaders run the danger of being anti-leaders. By asking us to trust them, their policies, their political skills, they are ultimately requesting that we hand over the keys and trust them with the direction. We are now seeing where that is getting us. In a complex world, we can’t be led by an old world sense of hierarchy. We – citizens, voters, enlightened, empathetic, and lately too self-absorbed – want in on the action of power, not merely to observer it. We wish a hand in creating a world of new solutions. And for that we require a new kind of leadership.

This not a question of us reclaiming our birthright. We never had power in the first place; it always swirled in the area of hierarchical leaders. It’s a question of us now progressing to the point when power is shared, not just owned, monopolized, or exercised.  Are we ready for it as citizens?

Gone are the days when we can conveniently leave the pressing tasks of leadership to the boardroom or the backroom. Tomorrow’s generation of leaders must be able to inspire us towards a cooperative way ahead instead of merely managing our collective decline.  I believe those leaders will emerge and are readying themselves – women and men of courage and inclusiveness – but that we must first demand it, not only of them but ourselves.

In our present life everyone has an opinion. Some even have ideas. But it seems that no one has solutions. They must yet be discovered in those areas we once deemed as unreachable. We now stand between the inevitable and the impossible. Our next generation of leaders must shake off the former while leading us to the latter.

Next post: Leadership and “followship”


“Idiots” – Community Engagement Podcast (25)

If citizens check out of the political process, then it becomes increasingly easy for governments to do as they wish.  We all know that.  And yet, with voter turnout declining in most democracies around the world, the democratic estate is becoming increasingly ineffective.  There’s an ancient name for people who don’t wish to take up their societal responsibilities and until they do, then our challenges will only get greater in equal measure to our disillusionment.  We can solve such difficulties, but it will require a new kind of citizenship.

Click on the audio button below to listen to the six-minute podcast.

Bring On the Lunatics

limitationsToday we start a new series concerning the end of growth and how to learn to live with the new normal.  Really it’s about stasis – ancient Greek term meaning “to stand still”.  Most of us have been sensing this for some time as our communities, economy, citizenship, environmental sustainability and democracy appear mired in inadequacy in a fashion we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.  None of our present institutions has come forward with sufficient solutions to lift all of these dimensions from their doldrums.

It’s time we started telling the truth to one another, especially as it refers to how we plan our economies.  A raft of new books and studies have appeared in recent years that point to our ineffectiveness – the end of growth, a post-democratic era, days of decline, etc.  It’s not the first time the developed world has leveled off, or even declined in such a fashion, but our present predicament in unique in the sheer amount of wealth flowing around the globe.  Canada has never seen so much money moving through its financial sectors and yet a diminishing portion of it filters down to our communities and institutions.  The middle-class is increasingly squeezed every year.  Solutions to poverty now appear farther off than ever before and our country runs the risk of tolerating a permanent society of classes.  A rising number of fellow citizens are working far longer hours for less.  Also rising is the number of unemployed.  Governments are running out of funds at all levels and years of attrition appear to lie ahead.

I think we all sense this but remain reticent to speak honestly with one another lest by even introducing the subject we hasten our days of diminishing returns.  Worse still, our leaders at all levels don’t dare utter such warnings for fear it might undercut and undermine their own validation as elites.  Politicians, public officials, educators, media spokespersons, writers, artists, researchers, even advocates, fear to break with the conventional wisdom of unending growth because they lack any kind of robust solutions to our daunting challenges.  And so they carry on, tinkering around the edges of the status quo because to tell the truth would reveal their own ineptitude.

In their own way, citizens are no different.  Having increasingly dumped on institutions for the better part of two decades, they nevertheless show little inclination to pull themselves together in ways that compensate for the dysfunction of the political order.  At both ends of the democratic spectrum – governors and governed – the ability to speak truth to power has lost any salience because no one is really sure what the truth is anymore – we are only aware of the consequences of not possessing it.

The greatest danger of all is that, knowingly or unknowingly, we are in the process of slowly training our guns on one another.  As we hearken to our leaders telling us we have less and less financial resources with which to face the future, we begin to witness workers turn on the unemployed or unionized employees, citizens dealing more aggressively with their aboriginal people and vice-versa, the middle-class fighting the marginalized for fewer resources, politicians ignoring their citizens, voters disposing of their ballots, Canadian west and east duking it out, political parties seeking to obliterate rather than cooperate, and Canadians maintaining actions clearly hostile to the environment.

The devastating recession we recently endured supposedly ended almost two years ago and yet little is changing.  We know it and we witness the devastating effects on our fellow citizens unable to get ahead of the downward economic pull.

We are instructed repeatedly that we are in precarious times of transition but as long as we get the fundamentals right that we’ll be okay.  When is that going to happen?  This hasn’t been a two-year phenomenon but a decades-old financial and economic model that is leaving more and more on the margins.  And as long as we continue to accept such platitudes and assurances, we will participate in our own decline and disenfranchisement.

We are Western democracies.  That means we can control the levers of government to turn it in favour of the critical mass of citizens.  Well, we used to believe that anyway.  Now we’re informed that globalization has placed true and fundamental reform out of our reach as democracies – markets and their inexorable laws rule.  Then what’s the good of a democracy if we can’t truly alter our fate?

I just finished reading a lengthy book on the life of Theodore Roosevelt.  One of his observations has stayed with me: “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.”  If that’s the case, then bring on the lunacy because our perceived sanity is not longer effective or even real.  Lunacy is relative.  Diefenbaker felt Pearson was “crazy” for introducing a new flag.  Tommy Douglas was viewed as a Western Canada fanatic for his belief in healthcare.  Let’s have more crazy people just like them because we now live in days of confusion and decline and a little reform might just be the ticket.

But we’re not going to fight for that – at least not yet.  The time will come when economic oppression will cause us to clamour for change and vote accordingly.  But until that moment, let’s spend some time considering the new normal and what it means for us.

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