The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: humility

Humility or Hubris? It’s a Choice

Talking with some folks in the audience during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech to the UN General Assembly last week evoked some interesting observations. Ironically, the most common response was the least charged: “It was different.” Indeed it was. Trudeau’s clearly pointing out some of this country’s failures was surely unlike anything Canadians had heard in years, if ever. It has left many wondering as to the purpose of the PM’s approach. We’ll never fully know, but some advantages come to mind.

Some maintain that’s it likely to help Canada’s next bid for a seat at the UN Security Council, scheduled for 2021. Given our failed bid for that same seat in 2010 following something of a bungled campaign, there are some lingering perceptions to overcome, along with a renewed campaign firing on all cylinders. Could Trudeau’s mea culpa concerning Canada’s failing record in indigenous affairs hurt the prospect of the UN seat? Not likely. Following years of UN urging of Canada to work on more proactive solutions with our indigenous citizens that were largely ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments, Trudeau’s appearing to finally be hearkening to the warnings will likely get UN decision-makers to sit up and take notice.

It’s rare for a leader from one of the world’s industrialized nations to turn so introspective, yet it was something leaders from the developing world would understand. I’ve been in attendance during such UN sessions where leaders from poorer nations, while inevitably brandishing their accomplishments, nevertheless had to spend time acknowledging their failures on issues like gender equality, debt repayment or climate change reforms. They had to prove to both the UN and the advanced nations present that they remained worthy of the West’s investment in their own domestic economies. At times humiliating, it remained a necessary step towards securing ongoing assistance.

Canada was under no such pressure as Trudeau made his address and the sight of a highly regarded and prosperous nation acknowledging its failures opened a new door for how we are seen internationally. Though Canadians often prove reticent to admit to the reality, we are keen to know how we are being perceived across the globe and take occasional pride in plaudits thrown our way. How we will we react to having our collective shortcomings aired before a global audience remains to be seen.

But there was one key aspect of Trudeau’s speech that had inevitable effect: his demeanour. The subject of humility among political leaders is almost non-existent anymore. Confidence, more often over-confidence, comes part and parcel with political leadership in the modern era. Admitting mistakes, the ability to reconcile with others, the willingness to change positions in light of new evidence – these were traits we looked for in those running for office.

Not anymore. Can anyone imagine Donald Trump uttering the words of his nation’s first president upon stepping down as leader, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error. I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors”?

We expect such humility from George Washington, but hardly from most other presidents and prime ministers. Yet this was the tone Trudeau took in front of the gathered nations of the world and it wasn’t without effect. In acknowledging both he and the country had farther to go on some of its promises, the PM was affirming that no nation had to be perfect as long as they were progressing along the path of social justice.

These days it’s often perceived as a weakness when a leader confesses to doubts or mistakes and we as citizens must take some responsibility for such a state of affairs. We want decisive leaders – until we don’t. Nations like the United States, in voting for the impervious leader often discover themselves questioning their own voting decisions. Whatever Trudeau’s motives for his speech, it was something different altogether from what the prosperous nations have practiced, and in doing so, even for only the duration of his delivery, he placed humanity at the apex of global affairs and the need for diplomacy over diatribe, of humility over hubris, and served notice that, collectively, Canadians understood such distinctions.

View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

Not What We Achieve, But How

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 9.21.33 PM

IT’S OFTEN TEMPTING TO THINK that the people who make a real difference in the world are the privileged, the connected, and the wealthy, but that’s merely because the media often seems fixated by such individuals. What frequently goes unnoticed are the countless individuals with an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit who are actually in the process of redefining leadership and contribution for a new generation. They are as different in personality as they are in skin colour or geographical locale. I have met enough of these women and men in the last few years that I’ve spotted a number of things they have in common, despite their other distinctions.

They are highly committed to making themselves better people, of refining those better angels of our nature we all possess to one degree or another. They might have begun with peddling an idea or sought to do things in a new way, but at some point they came to understand that how they accomplished important things was likely more vital than what they ultimately did. Their success was largely predicated on moving out into larger circles, and it was then that they learned that their personal biases, opinions, even prejudices, were getting in the way of the very thing they were attempting to create. They embraced that bigger world and grew more effective as leaders as a result.

Many of today’s effective leaders have learned that it’s just as important to shape the world rather than just build it. It’s an important distinction. To shape something is to woo, cajole, inspire, and ultimate persuade those things and people already around you to focus on aligning their efforts for a greater goal. I’ve seen this work over and over again in places like Africa, where resources are few but people resources are many. Those seeking to build often like to start from scratch. Some of our greatest leaders have worked that way, but often, in any field, it’s more important to align what already exists, and that’s takes leading people to work together. It’s never easy but often becomes more successful.

The most effective leaders are those who commit themselves to what gives their life personal meaning and a sense of direction. It’s not rocket science; people are most often highly attuned to what means the most to them. This is vital, since leading requires risk and it’s hard to get an individual to commit to something if it doesn’t inspire them. For certain leaders it is an experience they had that drives their conviction; for others it is an idea. But without the passion there will be little sacrifice. It’s tough to lead from the realm of the mundane.

Those capable of leading in new directions are most frequently characterized by vision and not just management. That’s useful in a world that seems ever-changing. How we manage things is vital to success, but when a new course must be charted it takes a visionary to see what is beyond the next obstacle, political change, or business plan. These two abilities – managing and vision – are essential and complementary, but the leaders who inspire the most are those who can see what others can’t.

Some view leadership as a personal pursuit, but the most effective leaders I have seen substitute lift for control. In other words, they develop the knack for bringing others along in their success. That’s not as easy as one might think, for it requires not only a sense of inclusion but humility as well – the ability to share the credit as opposed to monopolizing it, to admitting mistakes and forgiving others who sometimes fail. This is why small to medium-sized businesses are so essential to an economy, or why community groups from the grassroots are central to the life of any city or town – they started together and didn’t come in later to manage something that already existed. The secret is to keep that essence of teamwork intact once success comes along.

It’s time to stop bracketing leadership between the concept of notoriety or financial success. It’s becoming increasingly clear that merely viewing leadership as some great political, financial, arts or sports figure is to miss the point. That’s the standard way of looking at things and it’s not getting us very far. The essence of leadership is that it’s more adaptable in places where people share as opposed to where they control, manipulate, or blindly worship. And that is precisely where most people live. Effective leadership in such a setting has the greatest chance of touching the majority of us because it happens where we live. The secret is to speak to those who want to change their world and not those who already run it.

Transcending Politics


One more insight from Michael Ignatieff’s book, Fire and Ashes, stuck with me and it forms one of the great results of losing in politics – namely you become one of the forgotten ones.  At least that’s the theory.  Ignatieff puts it like this:

In the weeks afterward, the solitary reality of defeat began to sink in.  It turns out that there is nothing so ex as an ex-politician, especially a defeated one.  Your phone goes dead … When you’re done in politics, you are well and truly done, and it is a good idea to accept this as quickly as you can … the psychic challenge after defeat is to recover your standing.”

Political office can add a kind of esteem to your profile.  People notice you in restaurants.  There are requests to speak or attend meetings.  But what the politician often doesn’t realize is that it is the office that lends that credibility, not necessarily anything you have or haven’t accomplished.  Then, once you no longer hold that office, you often aren’t accorded the same kind of notoriety.  I have known dozens of former politicians who speak to this being their experience.  This reality that “your phone goes dead” can be disturbing if one is not prepared for it.  The higher up the pecking order you are in politics, the busier your phone gets.  But lose that office and you discover that the fall is not only precipitous, the silence can be deafening.

And yet there is another side to being out of politics that is often overlooked.  If your connection with your community was strong and vital prior to entering the political arena, you discover that you can quickly pick up those relationships again once your political days are done.  In my case, the phone started ringing.  Job offers immediately came in, but more important were those desiring help with their various community endeavours.  I was asked to sit on boards of churches and local organizations. I ended up meeting with families without food, and wealthy individuals seeking a place to invest their resources that would spell the most good to our city.

But by far the greatest amount of requests came from those desperately struggling to believe in the validity of politics.  They rightly assumed that some kind of “system-wide failure” was rendering the political class ineffective.  The majority was desperately trying to believe that politics could still have an honourable place in our communities.

For whatever reason, my life took on some special meaning after politics.  It took me some time to understand it, but it basically came down to the fact that if you put your community first prior to entering politics, and give it the place of prominence while you are elected, then your community, in turn, will respect you in kind.  In other words, if you live a life that transcends politics, you eventually discover that your fellow citizens are eager for your community development energies once more.

There is now this profound feeling in the Canadian citizenry that politics is all about the party, about getting elected, about treating voters as a means to an end.  It has almost become universal, yet many politicians continue to play and extend that game.  It has been going on long enough that citizens are getting far more attuned as to who is a fake and who isn’t.  They can detect that party “groupie” from the principled public servant.  They easily spot the person with fabricated answers.  They know when they’re being played and when they’re being honestly engaged.

Which leads me to believe that the person who can put their constituents above everything else in politics – the parties, the perks, the propaganda, the pandering – is the very person who can restore integrity to our political structures.  The politician who lives his or her life well beyond politics itself will be recognized by citizens for the genuine article she or he is.  I watch in despair as both aspiring politicians and those already elected manipulate the public to get their vote and realize that I’m just one of thousands that detects the superficiality of it all.  By the same token, I delight when I’m spoken to straight up and humbly, just as most citizens would be delighted.  In fact, we would be overjoyed at meeting someone who is directly authentic.

British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was once confronted by an opponent who pitted his policy against Disraeli’s.  It was a bitter exchange.  Disraeli looked seriously at the man and said, “Sir, I shall not defeat you – I shall transcend you.”  Isn’t this what we are looking for, the kind of politics that can get past itself?  What is wrong with wanting our next mayor, provincial or federal politician to be the next Mandela or Vaclav Havel?  Nothing, absolutely nothing.  In fact it is a welcome aspiration.  But for a person to actually be that kind of politician, they must first live transcendent lives, the kind that wins the voter through humanity, genuineness, transparency and passion for community instead of party planks and plastic smiles.  Be that before you enter politics and you might be the next politician to turn your community around through humble and respectful public service.  It’s what you are and not what you want to be that will spell the difference.

A Life More Important Than Words – Citizen Engagement Podcast (33)

The genius of democracy is not how right, or even how smart we are.  It is how open we are to find compromise that will permit us to move ahead as a citizenry.  Our present democratic state is mired in rigidity, in policies that won’t budge, and in characters than think having a strong opinion is the same as possessing strong truth.  No leader can deliver us from this and no government can legislate an open mind.  There’s work to do and humility is the one great essential if we are to succeed.

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

Citizenship – “41,654 to 10”

That great rebel for liberty, Thomas Paine, wrote of his take on the society of his day: “Society is composed of distinct, unconnected individuals who are continually meeting, crossing, uniting, opposing and separating from each other as accident, interest and circumstances shall direct.” That was 250 years ago and it’s not all that much different today – we are aware of each other but often remain isolated. Citizenship is all about how we handle that individuality in ways that brings about social and economic cohesion.

These summer posts were designed to help move that grand exercise along. I’m no expert, but hopefully the posts opened a few windows and doors so that we can consider possibilities. Put all together, the posts took up 41,654 words, and will be put together in book form – both bound and digitally. Yet in thinking of all those hours spent researching, discussing with friends, and putting thoughts on my laptop, I realized yesterday that all those words could likely be cut down to 10.

First, go big. This has been a constant theme in most of these posts for obvious reasons. Despite the ominous wealth and communication potential in Canada, we seem to be failing on so many levels. We need to have grand thoughts, a comprehensive vision, a workable framework from which we can build a broader citizen movement. We each have our own concerns, but issues like climate change, unemployment, the rising costs of education, and the roadblocks that encumber small and medium size businesses stand before us waiting to be addressed. The political system needs a reminder of just how important these things are to us. We want in and perhaps it’s beginning to dawn on us that if we don’t go big, we must just as likely have to go home, defeated once more.

But if we’re going to tackle big issues it is essential that we go together. To counteract the demoralizing decline, many of us have taken to fighting for individual initiatives in efforts to gain the attention of governments, media, corporations, and other citizens. But where has it gotten us? The inherent problems of the larger issues remain unaddressed, despite certain individual successes. The further apart we are, the less the powers that be will listen or act.

And let’s be sure to go humbly. We all have opinions and we’re passionate about our country. The present political climate has created anger and frustration, as we watch partisanship distract political representatives from the great tasks before them. That angst has frequently caused us to be impatient at not being heard, even with one another. Some of the comments to these blogs, especially as they dealt with taxes, drew fiery rhetoric that couldn’t be suitable in a public place, let alone in Parliament. We’ll have to do better than that with one another if we desire citizens to be taken seriously. It is precisely when we do come together as citizens that we enter our moment of greatest danger. Our diverse opinions and lack of patience with other points of view could derail us before we begin. We despise it when we witness in Parliament; there’s no point in us replicating that futile practice.

If we wish to be effective, let’s go resourced. We must request that our local civic administrations provide us the tools we require to function as effective collaborators in public life and policy. We are interested citizens and we volunteer our valuable time – a huge resource for the political system, should they play their cards right. We will require research, bureaucratic expertise, and political experience concerning legislation. We pay for it anyway, so let’s ask for it. The political structure is required to assist us anyway, so let’s test their willingness to partner with us. It’s not just knowledge we’re after, but a partnership with those responsible for the public space. Hannah Arendt understood this when she wrote: “Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken in it.”

We are entering complex and frustrating territory here. Though often confident in our opinions, we are about to encounter challenges that the politicians and civil servants have tackled for years and we’ll gain a better understanding of the hurdles they face. That’s a good thing and will likely result in mutual respect. And politicians themselves who have learned over time to be distant from an often frustrated and petitioning citizenry will have to begin the laborious process of seeing us as citizens and not just voters – no easy task in a political domain in perpetual state of election readiness.

Which brings us to our final two words – let’s just go. No more waiting. Let’s throw the ethical weight of our love for Canada into the breach by joining forces with our politicians in ways that are remedial. And let’s learn as we do it, recalling the words of Vaclav Havel:

It is not that we should simply seek new and better ways of managing society, the economy and the world. The point is that we should fundamentally change how we behave.”

The things that are broken can be repaired. Our distance can be closed by commitment. Our isolation can be transcended by the great tasks we undertake together. The great things our parents and grandparents accomplished in the past are mere precursors for what we can do today. We have lived apart too long. Our country calls us together once again. Great nations possess that ability.

Note: Many thanks to all those who have patiently muddled through these blogs in the last couple of months. Your dedication to the greater cause of citizenship has made the effort worthwhile.

%d bloggers like this: