Would you like to lead the Conservative Party of Canada? There is a vacancy. Prime Minister Steven Harper stepped down as leader following the 2015 federal election. The race to replace him is now underway.
If you’re actually interested, you’ll ask the question that everyone asks before they run. Can you win? That’s a mistake. The better question is: “should” you win? Put another way, do you have what it takes to lead? If so, and if you want it, then run. Let fate decide if you can win.
Having been involved in politics off and on for 44 years, a number of friends and fellow travellers have asked me who I’m supporting in the pending leadership races. Usually the question is “Who do you like”? Or, “Who do you think will win?” I suppose those are fair questions, but, really, I don’t know. I do, however, have fairly definite opinions about who “should” win.
It all starts with identifying the qualities of great leaders. I’ll suggest there are three that dwarf the others. Each quality is necessary. Missing one? Then you should really give it a pass. So consider this carefully.
Given that each is absolutely necessary the order doesn’t matter, so here it goes.
You have to be competent. This may seem trite, but it’s not. And don’t confuse this with education, experience, intelligence or other similar sub-qualities. It can be argued that those are necessary, or at least important, attributes for a leader to be competent, and there is some weight to that argument. But however you develop it, you must be fundamentally competent to lead. If you are not, why are you running? And be clear, I don’t mean you have to appear competent, I mean you have to actually be competent. Usually, but not always, this involves having a track record of accomplishment.
You have to be open minded: Again, don’t confuse this with being tolerant. Tolerance may be an asset, but I’m referring to having an open mind on every issue. Generally, this means that you make decisions based on information, expert advice, vigorous debate and thoughtful reflection, rather than a pre-existing ideology. Left, right, it really doesn’t matter. Ideologically driven decisions are often bad decisions. I’ve written on this before https://calgaryrob.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/even-good-ideology-makes-for-bad-government/. And while we’re talking about ideology, be clear that having an open mind is a sign of strength, not weakness. Are you committed to approaching every challenge you’ll encounter in office without a pre-determined course of action? If not, you’ll head down the wrong path more often than not.
You have to have character: This encompasses many sub-qualities as well. It starts with uncompromising honesty, but it is more than that. Are you committed to doing the right thing and putting the interests of others before your own? Do you have a prodigious work ethic? Do you seek power so that you can make life better for everyone? Are you willing to make difficult decisions? This is character. But be clear, I’m not suggesting that you promise these things to others. Promise them to yourself. And follow through. This means being honest all the time, not when it is convenient. It means doing what’s right, even when it is unpopular. Doing what is best for others, despite the cost. Ask yourself, have you spent your life working tirelessly even when you’d rather not? These are but some of the attributes of character. The list is endless, but honesty, working harder than anyone else, doing the right thing and putting others first is a great start.
And that’s it. That’s who you have to be.
But what about being a good public speaker? Coming from the right region? Having the support of some key demographic? Is it time for a woman? Time for a man? Are you bilingual? Do you have a great story? Did you work on a fishing boat to put your siblings through college? Doesn’t this matter?
Frankly, none of this matters, other than perhaps being bilingual due to the unique nature of Canada. Most of this is superficial, or spin or worse. Otherwise these are just talents or circumstances, not fundamental traits. When these “key” factors fail to make a difference, as they do, the pundits rush to explain why they didn’t matter “in this case”. Perhaps they just don’t matter.
But what about policy? Surely policy is important? It’s really not. And it is less important today than ever before (though don’t confuse policy promises to win elections, with sound policy decisions when you govern – the latter matters). The sad reality is that promises no longer matter, because no one believes politicians anymore. Credibility is at an all time low in modern history.
Promises just don’t get you elected anymore. At least not as much as they used to. Be a great leader. That will make you a great candidate. People will trust you to address whatever comes, and make the right decision. Voters today assess what they believe you will do, and what you may promise to do doesn’t factor much into their analysis.
This is really the crux of it, and it goes a long way towards explaining the Donald Trump phenomenon. Forget what he is promising. A 40 foot wall from the Pacific to the Caribbean, that Mexico will pay for? Barrels of ink have been spilled on why this will never happen. But people are voting for him anyway. So it’s not because of what he is promising. They are voting for him because of who he is, or at least who they believe he is.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s weird. After making so many absurd and obviously untrue statements, you would think that Trump wouldn’t be able to gather a dozen votes in his home state of New York. But the voters believe. They believe he hates the establishment. They believe he’ll blow it up. They believe he’ll be tough on illegal immigrants. They believe that he hates what they hate. That makes him authentic to them, at least on one level. And that’s why Donald Trump is winning – for now.
Do I think he “should” win? Of course not. He may be a competent land developer, but I’m aware of nothing to suggest he’d be a competent President. His character attributes are, by any objective standard, non-existent. I do actually believe he is open-minded, despite the ideological rhetoric he was peddling to win the Republican base during the primaries, but that’s not nearly enough. One out of three doesn’t do it for me. That said, he could win. Time will tell if he can overcome Clinton’s early lead in the polls.
Hopefully we’ll have much better options in Canada, and maybe you’ll be one of them. If you are not running, we can start talking about who “should” win. Who should be the next leader in Ottawa – or Edmonton, if you’re more provincially inclined? Who has character, competence and the open-mind necessary to lead effectively? That’s not yet clear to me, but we should all try hard to determine who has these qualities.
I’ve got to be frank though. If someone like that does run, I’ll be even more interested in discovering whether we have the good sense to elect them.