Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ignatieff: the leadership thing

I should have been overjoyed by Michael Ignatieff’s performance at the Canada at 150 “Thinkers’ Conference” in Montreal this past weekend. To a large extent leadership is a media construct, and the received view of it is, I believe, fundamentally anti-democratic. I have long argued for a new conception of leadership, a cooperative approach, and one where a leader feels safe to speak of complexity and difficulty rather than offering the false security of sound-bites and press releases.

And here was Ignatieff, pushing for a “party of the network,” asking for help, inviting widespread participation, and bringing together thinkers, even dissident ones like Robert Fowler, in his refurbished big tent. That style contrasts vividly—and it was meant to—with the rigid, micro-managing Stephen Harper, his sense of perfect rightness, his utter unwillingness (or inability) to admit doubt or nuance into his pronouncements.

Yet it left me cold.

In his closing remarks, Ignatieff talked about a new way of leading—in his usual passionless, tepid, professorial manner. When he did try to inject his own words with enthusiasm, it sounded as though he was trying. That’s a matter of style, but style is a necessary element of communication, surely the single most important aspect of leadership. A great communicator can viscerally transmit his or her confidence and passion directly to the listener. But there is something bloodless about Ignatieff.

In fairness, had anything substantive come out of the think-meet, he might well have shaken off some of his stiffness. But the Liberal Party seems stubbornly resistant to anything rising above the cliché. Ignatieff's wrap-up lacked life, at least in part, because nothing new came out of this conference at all, other than the remarkably forthright views on foreign policy delivered by Robert Fowler—who was almost immediately patronizingly dismissed (“He has earned the right to say what he wants, ” said Ignatieff.) Unlike Conservatives, Liberals do allow dissent—but they are prone to stifle it with soft pillows.

What leadership is Ignatieff actually offering? He was absent when Parliament recently resumed, off gallivanting in the hinterland to prove his democratic credentials. Now he’s back, but rather than reaching out to Canadians as a whole, he headed almost immediately into a Thinkers’ Conference stuffed with intellectuals, who were supposed to generate coherent collective vision and policy.

And what did we get? Judging from Ignatieff's closing, no bedrock of principle to which specific policies can be anchored; no coherent new vision or striking new departure to galvanize Canadians or even (judging from the lukewarm applause he received) his own party faithful.

It was just one boosterist platitude after another: “We started as a conference and became a community.” “We changed Canadian politics this weekend and it will never be the same.” It was "Team Canada" this and "Own the Podium" that. I suspect most Canadians went about their business utterly unaware that the world had changed beneath their feet.

What were these changes? Well, there is now a “national strategy” supporting “knowledge and innovation.” Something has to be done about Aboriginal educational outcomes. Illiteracy is a “national priority.” Immigrants need more access to language programs, and those who qualify for post-secondary education should be able to go. And we could export our educational capacity to benefit a mysterious “five million people in Asia.” (That last one still has me scratching my head.)

Then there was a healthy dose of Facebook politics: network, network, network. But the "party of the network" now believes in a "responsibility network" instead of those nasty old Trudopian big federal programs. How reassuring that the with-it Liberals are really committed to Conservative values after all.

And so the mountains laboured, and brought forth a freeze on corporate taxes, and a set of priorities so vague that any party would have been comfortable advancing them, in almost exactly the same words.

Something happened this past weekend, but, pace Ignatieff, it’s not likely to be “forever etched in the memory of our Party and our country.” The memories are probably already fading for those involved, and most Canadians didn't even know it took place. “We have changed ourselves,” said the leader, but there is no outward sign of it. The Liberals remain adrift on a sea of bromides, safe harbour well out of reach—and the man at the wheel is, by all appearances, as lost as his crew.

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