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Does Successful Leadership Require Distasteful Characteristics?Does Successful Leadership Require Distasteful Characteristics?

Does Successful Leadership Require Distasteful Characteristics?


Ray Pennings
3 minute read

Dismissive disdain, partisan manipulation, mean-spirited vindictiveness, ruthless autocracy. We don't want to see these characteristics in our families, our friends, our neighbours, but what if they are the ingredients for political success? Why have some of Canada's most successful Prime Ministers displayed some of these distasteful traits?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons[/caption]

The current controversy around Canadian Senator expenses is well-known to Canadian politicos and irrelevant to those who don't follow these matters, so I will not go into it. Suffice it to say that certain persons in the governing party, appointed by and previously known for their loyalty to the Prime Minister, are proving to become political liabilities for the Prime Minister—and Mr. Harper's reaction is what I will study today.

Harper's way of dealing with friends-turned-liabilities has always been to fiercely protect allies up to a point, then at a certain point tip over and, somewhat ruthlessly, dismiss and direct all public blame towards these persons. Whether there is some grey about changing rules and who knew what when, it matters not—when the Prime Minister decides you have become a political liability, he throws you overboard without anything that resembles due process; he is more than ready to ensure you get all of the blame that can be heaped upon you; and he cuts you off from all privileges (including pay and benefits) in as public a matter as possible.

In the midst of the political chatter about what this tells us about the character of our current Prime Minister, I am reminded that similar debates might have been had regarding each of the major Prime Ministers that have served Canada over the past fifty years. Prime Minister Trudeau (1968-1984) was famously dismissive of Members of Parliament, the foreign service, and apparently even to many who were close to him. Prime Minster Mulroney (1984-1993) is often remembered as a partisan manipulator, working from the pretense of friendly relationships but being very utilitarian and pragmatic in "using" people to accomplish his goals. Prime Minster Chretien (1993-2004) was feared within political circles by both friends and foes for his vindictive streak.

A certain distasteful characteristic in Canadian political leaders correlates with political success. Correlation is not causation, and this is not to say that these leaders were successful because of these distasteful elements. (Indeed, reflecting on each of the four examples cited, there seems to be evidence that the personal characteristics were present well before they took office.) But while these attributes are hardly the ones that are marketed in political campaigns, once in office, they prove to be useful in cutting through some of the issues of the day.

It would be nice to see successful Prime Ministers known for loyalty, accountability, and responsibility. Same goes for all spheres of leadership, even outside of politics. It might be fruitful to question whether this phenomenon is particular to the Canadian political system where the head of the executive branch of government is also involved in the legislative branch of government. There is even room here for theological reflection regarding how concepts of servant leadership, the common good, justice, and accountability factor in.

But, as low voter turnout and other markers of cynicism will indicate, in our living memory Canada has not had a successful Prime Minister (success being defined as longevity here) who shied away from exercising distasteful character traits in order to cut through a difficult situation and ultimately turn it to political advantage. It's part of leadership in a fallen world, and short of saying that this means the political world is so corrupted we cannot take part, we need to factor it into our political analysis and calculus.

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