"You have failed to understand that a prime minister has only one job: to unite Canadians."
- Michael Ignatieff on Stephen Harper
I read that line attributed to Michael Ignatieff over at James Morton's blog. It immediately struck me as a curious thing to say, especially for a highly-educated, sophisticated person to say.
It led me to ponder what leaders from history have been most successful at uniting their peoples and just how did they manage to achieve their successes?
It dawned on me that truly great leaders rarely are the best at uniting their citizens. They almost always seem to provoke a visceral opposition. That's probably because they view their prime objective as to lead, not to unite.
Achieving near unity is the classic carrot and stick game. You buy as much support as you can with carrots and beat as many as possible of the remainder into submission. Except you don't use carrots and you don't actually use sticks. There is a vast and far more effective arsenal of weapons wielded by uniters.
Look at the great uniters of the 20th century - odious names like Benito, Adolph, Mao, George w. - people who rallied unprecedented and unquestioning popular support from their people. How did they do it? By instilling fear of foreigners, contempt of unbelievers in their own ranks and a contrived belief in the superiority of their beliefs (naturally as explained by their Uniters).
Unity admits of a unipolar existence, a narrow correctness of thought, a stifling of dissent and protest, a collapse of creativity and a tight, rigid fetter on advancement.
I suppose a unity pitch is easier to swallow if you either hold no strong values and principles or if your values and principles can be brought into line with those of the would-be uniter. All the great uniters of the 20th century had powerful values and principles that were imposed from the top down, invariably with disastrous consequences.
A unity pitch becomes much harder to swallow for those who cannot reconcile themselves to the values and principles of the uniter; who see them as flawed or ill-conceived or self-serving.
A genuine leader seeks to actually lead, not to unite. One of the most sensible things I ever heard Richard Nixon say came during a question on leadership from David Frost. Nixon very eloquently described leadership as the ability to persuade the public to accept and support unpopular or unpleasant measures. It's the gift of rational, honest persuasion, a talent notably lacking among the great uniters of the 20th century.