WELL, THERE YOU GO. It’s probably a cautionary risk to offer advice to anyone seeking the highest elected office in the land. An old political operative contacted me by email this morning regarding yesterday’s post, 10 Essential Traits Our Next Prime Minister Will Need. “Politics is fundamentally tough, Glen,” she noted. “It’s hardball at a high level and these soft characteristics you write about surely sound great to average people, but no prime minister can afford to govern like that.”
So there I was, busted – a hopeless public service romantic in a world of real-world politics. Yet I suspect there’s something in her observation that most of us would have to acknowledge. As it presently stands, federal politics is a war zone and only hardened soldiers can survive.
Still, there was that phrase, “sound great to average people,” that hinted how far the political order has distanced itself from those who validate it in the first place – citizens. To a large sector of the Canadian public the fact that democracy is equivalent to war is significantly uncomfortable and unnatural. For a historically compassionate and entrepreneurial people, only a caring and innovative government is suitable. At present there is a great mismatch between the citizen and political orders in this country.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.” That is true, and if our political world is one of debilitating partisanship and ineffective policies, then that says something about our political parties themselves, and chiefly the prime minister who sets the tone.
So let’s put out six more of these so-called “soft” traits that the next prime minister will need if politics itself is to be pulled back from the brink of “mutually assured destruction.”
- Follow the Golden Rule (“treat others as you would be treated yourself”). The old German statesman, Johan Goethe, put it well: “The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” If Canadians are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated, it’s because they are picking it up from their political leaders. An effective PM has to change that equation, and fast, before all political hope for recovery is lost. At the heart of it, any PM desires respect, compassion, effective work, a collaborative environment, and family opportunity. Why, then, deny other Canadians those most basic of values in your quest for power. Earn that power, don’t grasp it through non-stop combat.
- Courage. Far harder that fighting a war is keeping the peace, and for that we require a PM who knows how to mend fences not plant landmines. It’s time for an armistice, for the sake of the country and our own hope for the future. To raise a political battle cry at present isn’t courageous; it’s normal. The true pathfinder will work through the differences and build a way ahead on the basis of our commonalities, even with those from other political parties. Enough with the bluster already; it’s time for brokering a more contented nation. Stop setting the tone for conflict and start showing the trend towards peace and shared prosperity. If you’re going to fight for anything, fight for peacefulness in the land. You may not want to provide it, but we have every right to expect it.
- Humility. No, sorry, this isn’t about you, even if you are the most famous political figure in the land. It’s about how you share power, show preference for citizens, and understand that the honour that has been conferred upon you to lead is one of hopeful trust and therefore fragile – break that trust and you’ve broken the Canadian spirit. We are a terrific nation, but we are massively diversified and spread out. We have a well-earned reputation for compromise, peacekeeping, collaboration, and, yes, managed tension. Don’t break that link with history through your arrogance. Be humbled by our past narrative, what we have built together, and then humbled even more by the quality of our citizens.
- Be Enthusiastic. I know, this should be a given, but all too often the sense of energy is about how great the political party is and not about the transcendent potential of the Canadian people. Elections are supposed to be about you being the best candidate because you believe in them, not because they adhere to you. There will be lots of Canadians who didn’t vote for you. Your job isn’t to ignore them but empower their capacity. If politics is about winners and losers, then democracy is supposed to be about everyone as winners, at least potentially.
- Be compassionate. Abigail Van Buren said, “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” Be just that kind of person and stop merely preferring your own party people. Better to be known as the leader who included individuals and groups on the margins than the one who merely rewarded the elite. History will know the difference and so should you.
- Learn from others. There are reasons why average citizens hold in deep regard leaders like Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Malala, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel. They believed in the ethical order of political and social life and their narratives went on to prove it. Learn from the writings of such people and you’ll not only bring a renaissance to Canada, but you’ll transform yourself.