Monday, May 04, 2009

Dear Michael - Uniting Canadians Isn't the Only Job

"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.


LMA said...

Ignatieff has also said that he realizes one of the jobs of the politician is to listen to the people. It strikes me that truly great leaders, e.g., Churchill, hear the cry of the people and then proceed to unify them behind a common cause. I think Ignatieff has many qualities that would make him a great leader, but not if he chooses policies that are against the needs and wants of the nation, e.g., clean air and water.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm not at all sure that Churchill was motivated by the 'cry of the people' at all. Chamberlain certainly was because the British people were strong supporters of a pacifism movement that evolved from the horrors of trench warfare in WWI. Similarly, FDR had to surmount a powerful isolationist sentiment embraced by the American people. Both men had to lead by standing up to, rather than following, the public sentiment. Both had to actually lead rather than massage popular opinion into a false unity that would fail their people. FDR was well along the path when the Japanese cinched the deal for him by attacking Pearl Harbour. Even then he prioritized America's war effort to take on Germany first, not Japan, the nation that had actually attacked the USA.

There is nothing to Ignatieff that even faintly resembles the leadership of either Churchill or FDR. Perhaps we've forgotten the true nature of great leadership.

LMA said...

I was referring to the fact that it was Churchill who kept the people of England united during the darkest days of the war, the Battle of Britain. Certainly wasn't comparing Ignatieff to Churchill or FDR, was just wondering if he was really listening to the nation, as great leaders do. What about Tommy Douglas? He certainly understood that Canadians were suffering and IMO he was a great leader.

Oemissions said...

I think this leadership issue for Canada is a crock of bull.
The Leader of a Liberal Party is the person chosen by the members to speak for the policies the membership believes in . The point of a convention is not to glorify the leader . It is to work and vote on policies.Then people understand where they,as a party are at on issues.These policies can be both general and specific. Otherwise, if the leader goes off talking his perspective only, we have a dictator,right?

The Mound of Sound said...

I understand your point, Oem. We elect a party leader but that doesn't, of itself, give them a mandate to direct but an opportunity to lead. If the 'leader' doesn't have a reasonable allegience to the values of his/her organization and its members and advance policies reflecting that then, you're right. I think we abrogate a great deal of our personal powers and responsibilities these days, far too much.