Saturday, February 18, 2012

Follow the Leader?

The question of leadership is in vogue right now. In Canada we have two federal leadership campaigns either underway or imminent, while in the United States we have the current battle for the Republican nomination after which comes the campaign for President.

While there are numerous and obvious differences between these contests in terms of policy and party dynamics, each one is giving visibility to the notion of leadership and the expectations we have of those elected to lead. For some, a leader is simply a manager. Others seek a visionary. For many substance and policy take a backseat to electability and the ability to deliver power.

In truth, a leader needs to be all of these things. They need to articulate a vision and direction, not just for the party of which they are a member but for the broader electorate. They also need to demonstrate an ability to provide effective stewardship. While this can mean different things depending on your political stripe, in the end it comes down to being able to demonstrate competence.

All of this leads us to that third category - the ability to deliver power. Electability is the ultimate litmus test for any leader, but it is often the one most difficult to gauge at the time of a leadership campaign.


At its heart, a leadership campaign is made up of two simultaneous conversations. The first is a conversation between the candidates and party members. As such, the starting point of the conversation contains a lot of common ground and shared principles. Everyone is on the same team, so to speak.

However, a parallel conversation is also taking place between the candidates and the broader electorate, particularly those who are not committed to or aligned with one political party.

What's important here is that these voters do not necessarily share the same views as those committed party members, and in some cases might outright oppose them. Nevertheless, increasingly the path to victory depends on these non-aligned, swing voters.

The ongoing campaign for the U.S. Republican nomination provides a good example of the challenges a leadership candidate faces as they look to strike that delicate balance between winning the party faithful, and appealing to the swing voters.

Mitt Romney is the preferred candidate of the Republican hierarchy. Why? Because he is seen as the candidate most likely to attract moderate, centrist voters - the voters who will decide the Presidency. But before he can fight that battle, Romney needs to win over the rank and file of a fractured Republican party and conservative movement.

His challenge is that these members, and in particular those aligned with the tea party and the Christian conservative elements of the party, don't see themselves in him. As much as he may speak to the broader electorate (a debatable point, yes), he does not speak to large swaths of the party he wishes to lead.

All of this puts Mr. Romney in something of a trap. To win over the party he has to take positions and adopt rhetoric which appeals to them. Doing so, however, will hamper his chances with swing voters should be win the chance to take on President Obama.

What he needs to do is articulate a vision for both - something which will be extremely difficult to do in such a fractured political environment.


What, dear reader (hello, anyone?), does this have to do with Canada? For me, it serves as a good reminder for those who aspire to lead the NDP or the Liberals (or both...?) of the importance of not losing sight of those two, parallel conversations.

The candidates vying to replace Jack Layton know that winning over NDP members will not guarantee them Official Opposition status after the next election, never mind power. They also need to remember that the positions they take now as they appeal to the rank and file have the potential become future talking points issued by their opponents. The same holds true for the Liberals.

So what is a candidate to do?

- Speak to Canadians.
- Articulate a vision that bridges the gap between the party and the country.
- Define what your government will stand for and present a credible path towards achieving the goals you set out.
- Avoid the trap of simple solutions, such as "cut this" or "tax that."
- Be honest about the challenges we face and the choices we will need to make.
- Engage people by speaking to both their worries and their dreams.
- Be yourself; authenticity is critical.

The candidate that can best measure up against this scorecard stands the best chance of winning the leadership and positioning themselves for a general election. Anyone up for it?

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