Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Leadership needs educated followers

Steve Paikin, host of The Agenda on TVO, hosted a panel on leadership last evening. Some important insights were shared by Janice Stein, Jeffery Simpson, Allan Bonner, Andrew Cohen, and a couple of politics professors whose names I did not write down.
In Canada, we talk a lot about leadership and yet, one has to wonder if we are serious about developing leaders, especially when, as Allan Bonner says, we do nothing about teaching followers and followership.
Bravo, also last evening, carried the story of Celia Franca, who founded the National Ballet School, and the National Ballet Company of Canada, after having served an apprenticeship with Saddler's Wells in Great Britain. "All my years with the National Ballet were years of fighting," was her summary of her history in creating the company and the supporting school.
Being prepared to fight for something worthwhile, and having a clear head about what that is, seems so obviously integral to leadership. And yet, there are those who come to people like Bonner, for example, seeking to establish their "street-cred" and want to talk about how to dress and have no idea what they believe, what they stand for, and what change they seek to implement in any leadership capacity.
Of course, in Canada, no conversation about leadership ever occurs without considerable time being devoted to Pierre Trudeau, who not only practiced effective leadership, but changed the country forever, with both the Official Languages Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Another mark of leadership is the legacy left after the curtain closes on the life of the leader.
And yet, no one on the panel talked about what it was like to live in the Trudeau era, when the arts, and the globe and the FLQ and the public mind was literally transfixed on his next "scene" in the drama. To say Trudeau was charismatic is an understatement. He captivated our hearts and our imaginations and made us pay attention to our own country's state of affairs. A civil liberties advocate, a constitutional scholar, a world traveller (verging on the bohemian) a date for Streisand and Leona Boyd et al, an articulate and curious appreciator of the arts and of his own physical regimen and conditioning, Trudeau was a role model for every Canadian.
It may sound a little trite, in such company, to speak of his impact on the individual lives of Canadians; and yet, his flashing ice blue eyes, his instant and generous and unambiguous smile, his celebration of life with risk and without compromise, his intellectual preparation by consuming the details of all files coming from his cabinet ministers, his stature on the world stage...all of these features made him a citizen of the world, in a country that shyly fashions itself as a middle but competent, and useful if not revolutionary country. Trudeau gave a face, a name a voice and a physical presence to Canada, in his own iconic and inimitable manner.
His mastery of both languages made those of us who mastered only one a little hesitant to move into the second, given the example he set, and yet he would be most distressed to learn that his excellence was a little intimidating to anyone. "Go ahead and try!" he would undoubtedly exclaim when confronted by such timidity.
It is not that we all agreed with everything he proposed or brought to the table; it is more that we were and still are proud and even a little smug and grateful that we were alive when he showed us that Canadians were, and are the equals of all others around the globe and need take a backseat to none.
So amid the ruthlessness the panel discussed, and the charisma, and the intellectual rigour...there is also the whole person and the impact of that person on the minds, hearts and perceptions of those s/he is seeking to lead that matters. And would we be honoured to have him/her to dinner in our home?
And do we trust that the leader will do what s/he says s/he will do? And does the evidence bear that out?
And do we have confidence, that illusive but essential sine qua non of all  significant relationships? And if we don't have confidence, is that lack of confidence the result of the leader's inadequacies, or our own?
And we don't want to talk about our own failure to examine our own inadequacies. Sometimes a leader will overpower through the sheer brilliance of his/her mind, or the capacity to communicate, or the capacity to inspire...and when all of those capacities are present and fully developed, watch out...because changes are on the way...provided that same leader understands his/her place in the longer history of the culture of the country, or the organization.
And does the leader work alone or with other equally competent, or perhaps even more competent colleagues? As Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in "A Team of Rivals," Lincoln provides us with an excellent example of the leader without fear of outstanding cabinet colleagues.
And then there is that thing called ambition...which can be both gift and sword...depending on the manner in which the leader uses it. If too overt, it smacks of American brashness; if too understated, it smacks of Canadian false modesty. Hemingway's heroes demonstrated "grace under fire," a quality that leaders, especially in the kind of political vortex that Obama finds himself as president, must have in significant reserve. Whether or not the electorate appreciates his capacity for "grace under fire" is still a moot point. The next few months and years will tell that story. I'm betting his success has barely been glimpsed yet...another quality of great leaders...to keep us on the edge of our seats while continuing to play out the unwritten script of the drama that will become his/her legacy.
Is is not more than a little ironic that a college like RMC, Royal Military College, in Canada, does not believe in teaching "leadership" but rather prefers to teach psychology in its place? As if our military leaders of tomorrow will not have to have leadership skills that they have learned in their training and development...or perhaps they believe that the subject cannot be taught, that it must be integral to the person....not exclusively!

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