The Malleability of Political Leaders

I’ve always thought that the best leaders are always just ahead of the pack. Close enough to their followers that they are not standing alone but far enough ahead that they take us places where the rest of us would have never conceived of. Leaders cannot forget the people they are leading and they can also not forget that in the end they are supposed to lead, not follow or submit.

Four primary styles of political leadership

I think there are a few models of leadership regularly used in politics and often times hybrids that combine them.

There is the maverick who is out to promote their own agenda and will take along anyone willing to follow. This leader does not take into account what the public wants but instead bases on decision making on what they alone think the public should want. Consultation is not a word in the maverick’s dictionary. In the philosophical world these leaders would be subjectivists, believing their support for any idea is enough to make it the correct option.

On the opposite end there is the populist who largely acts as some sort of messiah for the peoples’ desires. This leader exists to do exactly what the people want. They are just one voice out of millions and are the servant of those millions of voices. This leader believes the people are always right and popular support for measures means it is both the necessary and the correct action to take because of this popular support. In the philosophical world, these leaders would be relativists, arguing that so long as society agrees on something it is therefore the correct course of action.

In between is the reconciler who has their own views, recognizes the desires of the public, and leads in new directions that are extensions of the public’s desires which they may have not been aware of, based on the leader’s own ideals.  For this leader it is not about the wants of him/herself or the public but about the needs of society at large. The goal of the reconciler is to slowly bring together the needs of society with the wants of society but leading the public beyond their present-focused views. The reconciler would be considered an objectivist in the philosophical world, choosing to evaluate situations based on rational considerations and not just consensus in society or their own gut feelings.

A fourth type exists in the chameleon. The chameleon moves from one of these styles to the other fairly seamlessly without ever really settling in any of them permanently. I would argue the likelihood of a leader being this type of leader increases with power and the need to be all things to all people in order to retain it. Another word for this type of leader is opportunist.

Political leadership in Canada

Reading these descriptions, several names of political leaders likely jump into your mind. Some of those names may even be current federal leaders. You may believe one model to be the best type of leader but for me that would rule out the mavericks and the populists as they both fail at least one basic component of leadership. Mavericks fail to generate followers or at least to retain them in the long run. Populists have followers but they are not leaders, mainly existing as the mouth piece for millions of other voices who cannot possibly all agree on everything anyway.

The chameleon can be respected if only for the reason that it appears to be the most politically viable way to conduct oneself as a leader. Be as malleable as possible so that you can at least appear to be all things to all people or as many as possible. It’s impossible to actually be all things to all people but the appearance of doing so or at least trying can take some politicians far. However the chameleon stands for little other than retaining power.

The reconciler is able to generate followers but also leads them into a society they may never have known without that leadership. They may not always be popular but they certainly stand for something and that something is actually reflected to some degree in the views of society. They do not fall into the trap of power without purpose or purpose without power. How does a leader strike this magical balance?

The reconciler as a road map for political leadership

To be a reconciler you must be all the things other leaders are not. You must be authentic, a trait the chameleon lacks. The public must know who you are and what you stand for and be elected or not accordingly.

At the same time, it cannot all be about the leader, which the maverick does not understand. Leaders are fallible and the relationship a leader has with society is the best way to ensure one is on the right track. Unpopular decisions are at times required, but a leader without support will face mutiny and rightly so (just ask Mackenzie Bowell).

And while it is dangerous to lead without regard for the beliefs and concerns of the people you lead, it is equally as dangerous to sacrifice your own vision for the confusing mess of desires the public holds dear. Leaders are guides and should never take a back seat to the public. If the entire public was in the driver’s seat, society would veer off the road into fiery destruction. We need leaders to concentrate the needs of society and deliver results. The populist does not understand this need.

Ultimately, politicians should be themselves, never apologize for doing so, campaign for things they believe in, respect concerns voters may have and ultimately remember it’s not all about them or even what they believe in, it’s about creating the best society possible for all.

Advice for the current and future crops of leaders

What all politicians should remember is that the most successful leaders in our history were the ones who worked to improve society, not replace it. They had similar views to the people they represented but enough vision to bring society forward as a whole. They were upfront about their beliefs and never hid their personalities. They were honest about themselves and their intentions and voters responded well to this.

When you think of the great leaders in our collective history, the ones who were most successful, Macdonald, Trudeau, Mulroney, and Chretien for example, all had huge personalities and did not apologize for that fact. Between these four men the total time spent governing was a collective 52 years.

Two current leaders are often seen as trying to evade the general public perception of them. Stephen Harper is accused of having a hidden agenda and responds by being extremely reserved in public. Yet his most likeable moments have been when, at the urging of his wife, he’s let loose and just been himself. He is a dad, a man with intense interests in music and sports, and apparently has a wicked wit. Yet publicly he’s seen as dull and mean spirited, the very opposite of the previous description.

Michael Ignatieff in contrast is seen as a stuffy Harvard professor who returned to Canada to be crowned Prime Minister. Yet all accounts by those who have actually met him describe a down to earth, warm-hearted man who will listen forever to anyone wanting to speak with him.

And at the same time as these more humble sides are hidden, the intellectual skills of both men are often derided as being out of touch with the voter. As if having intelligent leaders who understand complicated policy is a bad thing. As if Harper’s seemingly endless understanding of the details of all policies (according to his staff) and Ignatieff’s time at Harvard should be looked down on.

Politicians try to be perceived as ‘common folk’ because we couldn’t possibly respect those who strive to be more than average, which is incidentally a requirement of elected office, at least in my mind. Yet they are afraid to show their truly common sides in fear of being rejected by the voters.

Leaders, Harper and Ignatieff included,  should stop allowing themselves to be over-handled by the party machines. They should embrace their own identities and the relationship they have with the voter and leave the rest up to the electorate. They might be pleasantly surprised.

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