The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: leadership

10 Essential Traits Our Next Prime Minister Will Need

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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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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

Leaders Without Followers

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YOU CAN TELL LEADERSHIP IS IN TROUBLE when the leadership industry itself is worth some $50 billion dollars in the America alone. It’s not so much that more and more people are seeking out leadership positions, but that it is growing increasingly difficult to guide others, especially when our greatest problems never get solved.

According to Harvard University professor, Barbara Kellerman, in her new book, The End of Leadership, following years of research, she has become convinced leaders are no longer up to the greater tasks and that today’s present leadership training, while suitable four decades ago, no longer functions well today.

The reason? Average people themselves have changed. They no longer trust authority in the way they used to, and they definitely harbour great reserve about moves by the financial and political industries to woo them one way or another. Dominance, and the productive use of it, is no longer working in our institutions and even voluntary associations. Just because someone holds a leadership position doesn’t mean they are respected.

We have a federal election looming in the near future, and it’s a little disconcerting watching the party leaders move across the country bashing one another at the same time they maintain that we must work together if we are to provide a productive future. Such actions might indeed produced angry or skeptical voters, but it doesn’t stand a chance of inspiring them – no doubt a part of the reason our voter turnout remains low.

In world obsessed with producing leaders, why can’t we collectively get to our next stage of development as a society? It’s because followers have changed and are now demanding more share of power and decision-making. That was ideally what democracy was supposed to be about anyway. Now is the time to prove if it works. As Nancy Solomon put it: “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” We must begin asking better of our leaders, and the time has surely come to show more leadership and focus ourselves. Leadership used to be about the few; now it’s about the many. But for that to occur there must be a revolution in citizenship itself.

Is Leadership Dead?

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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”

 

Not What We Achieve, But How

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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.

No Need For Persuasion

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JUST WHEN YOU THINK NATIONAL POLITICS appears firmly cemented into the realm of hyper-partisan and unimaginative policies comes along a candidate who causes us to think different. Sometimes the effect of such a presence is profound, as I discovered over the holidays reading U. S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s gritty, A Fighting Chance. The New York Times describes the book as, “a potent mix of memoir and policy,” as indeed it is. Her presence in the political dimension is energizing enough to spend more than one post on her influence. She’s rapidly becoming the most captivating political personality in years.

Yes, Warren is a Democrat, and, yes, she comes from the progressive spectrum. But she is best described as a populist, as seen in the massive movement of middle-class citizens who have found in her practical reasoning and delightful courage a cause for hope. Tired of elitist politics, millions have come to see her as the best choice for president over people like Hillary Clinton or any Republican candidate. And because of that very reality she has become dangerous to the establishment on the Left and Right of the political spectrum.

Put simply, she has successfully launched a new wave involving millions of citizens who are buying into an agenda for political and economic change. It’s important to note that Warren didn’t woo people into such a decision; they were already there, energized and increasingly angry. It’s foolish to think that these people needed convincing and were mere kindling for Warren’s fiery rhetoric.  They lived through a number of decades which saw billions of dollars poured into politics and trillions into a globalized financial system with little to show for it in their own personal progress. So convincing them wasn’t necessary. They are savvy enough to know when the game is fixed, frustrated enough to feel they can’t prevail over an unjust economic order, but just furious enough to stay in the arena and fight back. And Elizabeth Warren has assisted them in understanding their potential for change. Whereas Obama’s early calls for change had been more of a social phenomenon, Warren’s clearly comes from a desire for equity and economic justice.

But the reality is that she has won over so many people specifically because she credits the average person with being smart enough to know something is wrong and human enough to demand change. In drawing a direct link between economic justice and financial reform she has located the sweet spot of middle-class angst.

To give us just a fleeting sense of her outlook, here’s a brief portion of her recent speech to the New Populism Conference last May:

“From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working groups get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups. The game is rigged by powerful interests – against the rest of us. If Wall Street can borrow money at 0.75% interest, why can’t we? Our college kids are getting crushed by student loan debt. We need to rebuild our roads and bridges and upgrade our power grids. We need more investment in research. But instead of building a future, this country is bleeding billions of dollars in tax loopholes and subsidies that go to the wealthy and profitable corporations. For big corporations, trade agreement time is like Christmas morning. They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in the public. Because it’s a trade deal, the negotiations are secret and the big corporations can do their work behind closed doors. The game is rigged. The rich and the powerful have lobbyists, and lawyers, and plenty of friends in Congress. Everyone else, not so much. Now we can whine about it. We can whimper. Or we can fight back. Me? I’m fighting back.”

Words like these have been uttered before, but not usually by someone so high up the political ladder and who has effectively galvanized millions of people behind the message. Yes, she’s dangerous – not merely because of her rhetoric, but because of the movement she is assisting to create. Just in time for national elections looming north and south of the 49th parallel has come a voice that counts more on people like us than her own influence. It’s a start. But it’s not the finish.  It might by the early days of the new year, but the old fight continues.

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