Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On leadership and character in politics

My recent semi-satirical look at Stephen Harper's oddly disturbing narcissism, and an earlier reflection upon leadership and media constructs, have prompted some interesting and sometimes strong reactions. It occurs to me that the issue of character in our politicians (and other public figures whose status is dependent upon a stable following) needs some further discussion.

There are really two questions here: 1) Do leaders require a certain character, in its broadest sense, to lead, and 2) why does the public perception of character diverge, in some cases radically, from the actual characters of those who gain and hold their trust as leaders?

The five representations of leadership seen above (I thought Stalin would be a suitably agreed-upon figure so that our debate doesn't dissolve into partisanship at the outset) are far from the only leadership-signs that are current. They are so common, however, that almost any person we determine to be a "leader" will have them in his or her repertoire. Half an hour on a Sunday morning watching televangelists should suffice to establish that.

In the first case, Stalin is gesturing to you, to make a point directly. In the second, by pointing upwards, he is evoking something "higher"--a principle, a cause, situated where "God" once was. Note than in the third picture we have a further idealization of the already idealized pose struck in the second, this time with a map of the USSR behind him, and close by, but beneath his heroic presence, the admiring "people." He is literally on a higher plane, pointing to still higher stages for the benefit of the masses. The fourth picture is Stalin the contemplator, all-wise, all-knowing, bathed in golden light.

The fifth is Stalin as welcoming, almost your equal, but separated from you by a desk upon which lie a book and some papers. Taking a break from the cares of office, his heroic labours as the Redeemer of the Masses, he almost seems to be asking you in for a drink. There is an ironic tension in all such representations, because the audience knows that these are not just plain folks: such gestures, in fact, have a dangerous feeling to them. Should we have that drink? How could we refuse? (At least Stephen Harper, in his too-tight leather vest, had the grace to look uncomfortable. It wasn't the vest, either: it was his unease at pretending to be what he doesn't really believe he is--an ordinary person.)

Now, these gestures and representations are not universal, but they are fairly commonplace in a number of different countries, performed by dictators and liberal democrats alike. They are gestures that we associate with a leader. Leaders lead. They point the way, they make a point, they want you to get the point.

When leaders fail to make the grand gestures, appear puzzled instead of contemplative, are hesitant in making their declarations, tentative in their pronouncements, cooperative instead of commanding, we are encouraged to think of them as weak. In Canada, the media chew them up. There is only one way to be a leader, and, whether we like to admit it or not, that way is merely exaggerated in the case of a dictator, but not fundamentally distinct from the prevalent view right here in Canada of what a leader should be.

We are hypnotized, in fact, by the aura and gestures of the leader. It's little wonder that the Dear Leader (and I refer here to Kim Jong-il) has adopted the same repertoire: the styles and images of the First World pervade the nation-states of the Third World, as they once did
in the Second.

Countless leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have "anxiously conjure[d] up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language
," and leaders like Kim have, additionally, taken all of that from a history other than their own, for reasons beyond the scope of this post.

In any case we know that this kind of leadership is performance, because some (e.g., Kim again, Benito Mussolini, the current Fijian strongman
Frank Bainimarama) are or have been so comically bad at it. And we know that leaders as distinct as Adolf Hitler and Pierre Elliott Trudeau choreographed their words and gestures down to the minutest detail before venturing out to be spontaneous. But there is more to it.

Just as leadership is reduced to gestures, and leaders lurk within the machines their bodies have become, like the man behind the curtain, so too they are imprinted with certain values and standards imposed as an obligation of their office. They must not appear merely human--when called upon to be so as a form of accountability, there must be, as already noted, a certain tension: their performance at such junctures
is revealed for precisely what it is. They must stumble when called upon to play the role of the ordinary person, they must not quite fit, precisely because they are expected to transcend all imperfections.

This is where character becomes central, although more so in liberal democratic states where it is permitted to matter. We divorce the actual requirements of leadership--sound judgment, the ability to work with others, administrative skills, vision, consistency, and above all the ability to communicate--from the image of leadership.

The question of character probably reached its nadir with the Clinton-Lewinsky farce, in which a President came close to being impeached because an employee had prevailed upon him over a period of months to allow her to perform fellatio on him--and he then lied about it. (His opponents so overplayed their hand that his approval ratings actually soared to 70% during his impeachment trial before the US Senate, but the whole extraordinary spectacle, capturing the time, energy and attention of almost the entire population, was nothing less than farcical. It was, after all,
just a blowjob.)

Why, then, do we insist upon applying such an inflexible double standard to leaders? Do we want them to be better than we are? Do we want them to incarnate values to which we only imperfectly adhere? Might the modern notion of leadership derive in some small part from the loss of the authority of God--this being a replica of that authority, quietly carrying with it a notion of perfection?

Michel Foucault, in some lectures delivered in the late 1970s, indeed located the roots of the modern concept of government in the preceding centuries of the Christian pastorate. The notion of the beneficent shepherd was, in a complex trajectory, transposed onto the notion of governance. Small wonder, if this is the case, that the virtue of the leader is perceived as something more encompassing that his or her office actually requires.

This is not to say that we see our leaders as necessarily perfect, of course (although there is an unsettling convergence of the divine and the earthly in the public image of Kim Jong-il), only that the reaction is so utterly disproportionate when imperfections are discovered.

But only some imperfections. I'm not referring to those that might actually affect the ability of a leader to carry out the daily, routine tasks of leadership, nor to flaws that are so egregious that we would deny high status to a person with them regardless of their talents. A leader whose bullying approach produces only a team of fearful yes-persons, for example, will make a poor political administrator, and the people will suffer the consequences (although such an approach may well be spun as "decisiveness," or "toughness," or "directness"). A convicted child molester, however capable, cannot fulfill a leadership role. But there is a lot in between that really shouldn't be a serious consideration, but which can produce cataclysmic political consequences as we have seen.

As I noted in my earlier piece on Dion, we need to deconstruct the entire notion of leader, and to look at other models. We are not assisted in this respect by the media, and we are hindered by ancient and powerful cultural preconceptions. Reflection is no easy task in such circumstances. But in the meantime--does character matter?

I have been suggesting that it does, but only insofar as it affects the ability of a leader to do the job. Here, however, we encounter a difficulty, because an essential part of that job is, of course, to be an effective public figure. If one can lose popular support over a peccadillo, then one's effectiveness is clearly hobbled. But I would nevertheless try to make a distinction here.

On the one hand, we have matters of personal character that should, and I emphasize "should," have nothing to do with the job. But they do, for all of the reasons I have outlined. Let us put these matters in parentheses for the moment: they have force and effect when they should have none, but that's a different argument.

There are other flaws and inadequacies, however, that clearly threaten the effectiveness of a person to perform leadership functions. I would argue that the latter are appropriate grist for the political mill. We should not entrust high public office in Canada, for example, to a person diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia, or to a thief, or to someone who speaks only Greek, or to an illiterate, or to an assassin.

In a grayer area, I would argue that petulance, narcissism, arbitrary misuses of power and the like, can make for grave ineffectiveness in a leader, quite apart from any moral concerns one might have. All of these flaws can be observed in dictators (where effectiveness other than in maintaining rule doesn't matter so much), and indeed may serve to perpetuate them in office. And, if allowed to become operational, they weaken democratic, cooperative processes in liberal democratic regimes; think, for example, of the Nixon presidency.

While we need to develop radically different ideas of leadership that depart from the dominant image with which I have been dealing, all can agree, I think, that the core democratic skills required by either a current leader or a new kind of leader are pretty much the same--other than maintaining the public persona to which the former is expected to conform. (I am setting aside the possibility of abolishing the notion of "leader" altogether; that's yet another discussion.) The flaws just enumerated are not simply a matter of public image: even if they don't lead to dictatorship, they impede the functioning of democracy.

It is precisely that sort of thing that legitimately makes the electorate uneasy. What people do in private, from consensual sex to talking with ghosts, is their own business, and even if revealed should ideally play no role in the political sphere unless the latter has been materially affected by it.

Personality defects that override sound democratic decision-making, however, that lead to government by whim and by mood, that flout the rule of law, are fair game in the public arena. Sometimes we should pay attention to that man behind the curtain. But on the other hand, as we make our political judgments and choices, we must have more than the current stylized, false images of leadership to guide us.


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