Sunday, March 17, 2013

What People Want From Leaders

Part of the neoconservative agenda, I suspect, is based on encouraging everyone to see life as a zero-sum game, where the world is a place in which there are only winners and losers; the implicit message is that if we are smart, we will be the winners at the expense of others. For example, my enjoying a generous tax cut that permits me to keep more of my money must come at the expense of something else, perhaps the proper funding of a programme such as Employment Insurance. Never will such choices be so baldly articulated, but they are real.

Another term that is sometimes used to discuss and promote this imperative is homo economicus or economic man, another rather soulless perspective in which a person is characterized as a rational person who pursues wealth for his own self-interest.

Or, as Gordon Gecko once said, "Greed is good."

Of course, those with the ability to think know that such a constricted and blinkered view of humanity is patent nonsense. Yes, we are selfish, yes we are greedy, but that is only part of the human equation, a part that ignores the nobler impulses we have, our concern for others, our compassion for the poor and suffering, our desire for a better life for everyone.

One can see how that side of human nature can interfere with the ardent 'messaging' of the extreme right-wing agenda.

I found myself thinking about these things this past week or so as worldwide interest in the selection of a new Pope peaked. The other catalyst was a thoughtful column by the Star's Royson James.

First, to the Pope. As one who is very cynical about the politics of the Catholic Church, and it is a cynicism and disaffection felt by millions worldwide, I was quite surprised to see the wide-ranging and comprehensive media coverage of the conclave. If the Church, because of its restrictive policies, arrant hypocrisy and egregious homophobia, has indeed become increasingly irrelevant to people, as I believe it has, why so much interest? Is it possibly the expression of an innate hope that a new Pope will somehow provide a purity of leadership that is so sorely lacking in the public arena? Do we pine for someone who will feel empathy and oneness with people?

Then I read Royson James. Although his column, entitled The mayor Toronto needs will start by loving us, is directed at the qualities Torontonians seek and need in a mayor, it occurred to me that they are the very qualities we yearn for in all of our leaders, both religious and secular, qualities that are, for example, largely lacking in municipal, provincial and federal politicians, no matter their stripe.

As you read the following excerpts, simply replace mayor for the position of your choice. James begins by talking about the desire to have a leader

to embrace and welcome; a leader to inspire and motivate; someone to make us proud ....who challenges us and inspires us to do better ourselves and improve our city. And do so by setting the right example.

We are not “taxpayers” only. Everything does not begin and end with the desire to reduce government and taxes. We are neighbours, fellow travelers, citizens of a metropolis whose people, natural charms, and agglomeration of dreams and strivings have created a bit of magic in our lives.

A leader, as opposed to a selfish manipulator, cultivates the things that bind us together so as to foster greater social cohesion:

We feel a kinship, share special memories, from Hurricane Hazel to oft-forgotten Stanley Cup parades; army patrols on a snowy day; the blackout; the Ex; the hole up Yonge St. to make way for the first subway.

We make room on the street for the Pride Parade and Caribana and Santa Claus and John Clarke and OCAP. And bikes.

We love the streetcar.

Emblematically, what we are not, according to James, is Mike Harris or any other rampaging, marauding magnate seeking to smash and burn the careful creation of our civic artisans.

And so it would seem that our deeper and better impulses direct us, with hope, to a world that can be much better than it is. They direct us to look for the kind of leadership, both secular and spiritual, that does not exploit our weakness and our selfishness, but instead demands that we all participate in the renewal of a broken world.

So far, sadly, I see no one on the horizon willing to challenge us in this way. The search continues.

UPDATE: For an indication of how short of the mark leadership in Ottawa falls, this article is worth checking out.


  1. We seek someone, as Lincoln said, who speaks to the better angels of our nature. Such people are rare, Lorne.

  2. It almost seems these days, Owen, that they are an extinct species.