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A Leader Must be A Leader
Encounters with Eleven Prime Ministers
"The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why."
– Mark Twain
I have been privileged to observe the last eleven Prime Ministers of Canada and interact with each of them since my first political experiences in the late '50s and early '60s. What follows are my reflections and personal impressions on leadership and their leadership as Prime Ministers for almost three score years. For the record, I have included my take on their legacies.
Factors of Leadership
Like all politicians have, I became obsessed with the factors that made a leader a leader early on. Was leadership a natural or learned skill set? What unique amalgam of oratory, ambition, character, persistence, doggedness, detachment, decisiveness, empathy, intelligence, optimism, personality, experiences, energy, memory, common sense, ideas, judgement, temperament, robust health, and most especially, self-awareness of one's persona, separate wannabee leaders from the pinnacle of leadership?
Beyond a leader's inherent aptitudes for leadership is the ability to be, or exhibit, empathy, if not compassion, with members of the public. Words are the leader's tools of the trade. Body language in the age of visuality is equally important. Perception becomes reality. To speak and invoke inspiration or have the gift of persuasion to groups, large and small, spontaneously or with careful forethought is a necessary talent. Of course, per force, a leader needs to be a quick study, well informed and a good listener – a quick and thoughtful responder. A major criterion of leadership is to attract a loyal team that are skilled and comfortable in a team environment under the public's glare.
Keeping a cool head when other lose theirs in a crisis is the epitome of leadership. No leader is perfect. He must know how to pace himself, and how to organize his time to allow him to reflect. Mistakes are often made in haste. How to recoup is a necessary skill. For this, he needs a tight rapid response team he trusts to get at the facts of any surprise, for in these modern times, there are many swift changing parts at home and abroad. The public has access to more platforms of news and is bombarded with information and the wide range of issues from 'natural disasters' to 'identity' to 'nuke' weaponry that is both constant and astonishing. So, a leader and his team must keep up with fast breaking news, separating facts from fiction or opinion.
Most politicians aspire to leadership, but so very few achieve their goal. Usually a long preoccupation and a lust for 'making a difference' in the public area or self-aggrandizement compels some to study, practice, prepare, and reach for the political mountaintop, master or mistress of all they perceive. Most leaders have a deep vein of narcissism. But do they possess that special, elusive alchemy, the 'royal jelly'? Each successful leader is a master of the 'dark' arts of politics, and as Churchill once wrote, needs, at times, to be a 'butcher' to chop errant supporters especially his Cabinet, whilst he keeps his own counsel. To be a skillful self-promotor and propagandist while appearing sincere and authentic, even reticent, is an essential talent to become a leader and practice leadership.
While the public understands ambition, it usually prefers those who do not appear power hungry.
Leaders will find their groove like a championship golfer. Once in that groove, some leaders, unsure of their own talents, demonize their political predecessors 'who always leave a mess' and are quick to 'project' blame for their mishaps on the 'others'. Other leaders disdain this narrative and eschew this line of politics, believing their own merit and ideas will win the day.
A Leader's Coterie
The leader's coterie quickly learns to align their 'echo chamber' with their leader's policies or stances to spread his 'word'. A leader of necessity to be a leader needs to attract a tight circle of followers and acolytes, as he practices perfecting his style. Can his coterie avoid the public eye? Rarely. If they don't, the leader usually suffers. It is tempting for them to bask in the reflecting light of their leader's halo. Yet, they both conspire to transmit nuanced propaganda if not 'fake' news to justify their hold on power for the 'people', or they place a brighter gloss of 'values' on their inexplicable behaviour to distract public attention from other potent mistakes of other issues while they seek to recoup. Leaders are driven by the belief that such conduct is permissible for they are offering a 'better' way forward for the nation. The 'people' are the object of their narrative. Words are coined like the 'average Canadian', the 'working Canadian', the 'forgotten Canadian', and recently, the favourite, the new sweet spot, the 'middle-class' to focus on this torqued market once empowered. Every leader, or his followers, are loath and reluctant to take responsibility for his own flaws or their mistakes, but rather light an incendiary torch to his adversaries to distract attention while seeking to maintain public empathy, if not sympathy, and supporter affinity.
Chief of Staff
Many Prime Ministers get off to a rocky start as the Prime Minister's election crew is suddenly confronted by a constant avalanche of problems and tasks that assail a Prime Minister once he accedes to office. One important key to this dilemma are the skill sets of the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff formerly called Principal Secretary.
John Diefenbaker never truly solved this endemic problem in his office. Mike Pearson appointed a youthful Jim Coutts who quickly grew in the job and matured later when Pierre Trudeau, after disastrous mistakes in his first period in office and some turnovers, appointed Jim, his Principal Secretary, in 1974 for the balance of his term in government.
Joe Clark's office disorganization caused him problems from the outset of his short administration especially his first trip abroad with luggage woes, and never fully recovered. John Turner's advisors were visibly divided from the outset and this damaged his Prime Ministership. Brian Mulroney had his problems at the outset of his administration, as did Jean Chrétien. When Chrétien appointed Jean Pelletier, his long-time friend and law school classmate, former Mayor of Quebec City, defeated Liberal candidate and shrewd political organizer, his office began to purr like a well-oiled machine. Pelletier became Chrétien's alter ego and brought judgment and gravitas to every problem, large or small.
Paul Martin's office failed to reach out beyond his tight knit entourage and assay the problems from within the Party and without to his detriment.
Stephen Harper had a turnover of Chiefs of Staff and suffered as a consequence.
Justin Trudeau's office was stable at the outset.
Taking The Office
A leader must also be a strategist and a tactician in the day-to-day onslaught of crises under the watchful eye of the media. As Churchill once wrote, "I could never be responsible for a strategy which excluded the offensive principle. A leader must know where and how to take the offense." A leader must know how to leave issues alone until he contributes to resolutions.
One common trait in a leader's longevity occurs when he displays restraint and yes, humility. It is tempting for leaders to fall in love with public adulation and forget that public admiration is transitory at best. To refrain from gloating about political victory or political successes is the mask a true leader devoted to the public interest should seek to wear. Ronald Reagan once queried how a politician could enter and maintain public office without being an actor. Reagan, like Lincoln and both Roosevelts, was a master of story-telling and could spin narratives to explain his actions. Obama loved telling stories about himself. So, telling stories is part of the art of leadership.
Charles de Gaulle wrote in his memoirs on leadership, "There can be no prestige without mystery, for familiarity breeds contempt." De Gaulle relished keeping his own counsel and his distance from even his closest confreres.
A leader, like a good chess or bridge player, should be able to think two or three steps ahead of his opponents, even his own advisers, and never disclose what he is really thinking. To reach out and garner advice from a larger range of voices who he trusts beyond his own circle and know when, where, and who to seek such advice broadens a leader's perspectives. Group think is an anathema to rational decision-making.
The Leader's Entourage
The leader of necessity runs his entourage like a modern enterprise. The 'nuts and bolts' are vital to success. The choice of the traditional 'bag man', the leader's key money raiser, is an essential ingredient in the leader's operation, who in turn, requires good astute ties to the financial community and is careful to avoid conflicts of interest and flying under the radar. In addition, a leader now needs a modern fundraising crew to ply the cyberspace to organize and gain their own adherents in the social media. In this modern era of legal issues drowning politics, a key legal adviser and a rapid response legal team also remains imperative. His election campaign chair must be on the ready at all times. Key strategists are also essential who can debate, devise, and agree on the steps forward with the leader's assent.
Ever Present Polling
Pollsters who provide daily glimpses of public opinion is now deemed requisite for the leader to nuance his message. Focus groups complete the leader's arsenal to test and shape his message. The social media now plays a powerful role in the leader's interactive tool box. Still, public events, large and small, are necessary to allow the leader to read public opinions and keep in touch with his vital supporters. No doubt, Prime Ministers' pollsters have taken on a sinister role with little, or no, transparency.
Truth and Propaganda
There is a paradox between advocating truth and facts versus palpable fiction. Orwell wrote how autocratic regimes burnished their propaganda machinery. To persuade the public is not necessarily successful based on the presentation of only a careful construct of facts. T.S. Elliot wrote, "We tend to substitute emotion for thought". The leader should be able to turn on the emotions tap to reach out and persuade the public and his followers. Leaders should be able to seize a 'teaching moment' to instigate a redirection in public opinions. Hierarchies surround power. C.S. Lewis considered how these relationships interact to gain loyalties. How 'men not yet bad will do very bad things to gain access to the inside, to be close to power'. At times, this emotive passion is difficult to abate. It lies buried in the human condition.
Above all, a leader needs luck to be successful. Techies glued to social media are now essential and leaders now respond quickly to erupting issues. Patience while waiting for a favourable climate to move towards a leader's goals is just good politics. Timing remains everything in politics.
Reacting To The Unexpected
Sometimes the unexpected can tell more about the instincts of a leader for leadership. When Pierre Trudeau attended a St. Baptiste Day parade in Montreal, he was pelted by separatist extremists in the crowd below. Rather than be pulled to safety, he insisted on keeping his place cementing in the minds of the public, a man of courage and strength. Strong elements within a leader attract followership. Sometimes unpredictable events can be a teaching moment. When Trudeau was accosted during the FLQ crisis and the War Measures Act was hastily imposed, he was asked by a TV reporter what he intended to do next, Trudeau replied, "Just watch me". It was another teaching moment.
No better insight to a Prime Minister's skill is crisis management. Quickly getting the facts, organizing a quick response team, and arriving at a solution or solutions all in public view is an essential attribute of leadership.
A Leader Must Be A Leader
'A leader must be a leader', a phrase I helped coin with Terry O'Malley (the master creative director at Vickers and Benson) in 1979 for the faltering Pierre Trudeau, when in his lackadaisical meandering campaign for election as Prime Minister ran out of steam in 1979. Preoccupied with family issues and episodic energy, his appetite for politics and most importantly, his groove, suffered as Trudeau lost to the unlikely leadership Joe Clark in the 1979 national election. Trudeau had dithered too long, and he gave up his majority. Joe Clark gained power, though Trudeau led the Liberals in the popular vote in the 1979 national election results. Still, an instinctive leader cannot easily give up. His drive and ambition, like an alter ego, did not allow him to go quietly into the twilight zone. His major political ambition had not been achieved. So it is with almost all political leaders. Once in the public limelight, in the public arena, it is hard to return to the shadows, away from public attention.
A Prime Minister's Powers
What is often overlooked by Canadians and observers is the almost absolute power a leader in Canada gains once he reaches the pinnacle of politics – the Prime Ministership. He chooses the head of the state, the Governor General, and the Lt. Governor of each province. The Prime Minister is the absolute master of his Party, his Cabinet, the elected members of his Party, the government bureaucracy, and all government agencies. Most of his appointments, in the thousands, serve at his 'pleasure', by order in council and can be removed without notice or cause. He appoints or 'green lights' Party officials, both elected volunteers and paid. He chooses not just the Chief Public Servant and the members of the Privy Council's office, but the members of the Prime Minister's Office. He appoints all senior federal bureaucrats at the Deputy and Assistant Deputy levels and all ambassadors, consultants, boards and heads of all government agencies and Crown Corporations, the heads of RCMP, all intelligence agencies, the heads of the armed services, and senior assistants. He 'green lights' the Speaker of the Commons to run for Speaker, appoints the Speaker of the Senate, the Government leader of the Senate, 'green lights' Parliamentary officers and he appoints all Senators, all federal judges especially the Chief Justice and Supreme Court of Canada and Chief Justice of Courts of each province, Chairs of each Committee of House, and now, in part, the Senate. He 'green lights' all senior political staff of his own, all ministers and, in some cases, M.P.'s. He chooses his election campaign committee and pollsters. He chooses the party media team and party fundraisers. He chooses his House leadership, his whip, and their assistants to corral his members to vote. He can decide what out of country trips an M.P. takes on public business and to mete out rewards for foreign travel. He approves the national caucus chair, and if he chooses, 'green lights' each chair of the committees of the caucus and the appointment of chairs of each committee of the Commons who serve at his pleasure! Sometimes he decides the appointment of a Chair over his party members' objections. He retains the right to kick members out of his caucus and invite others to join.
The first difficult task confronting a new Prime Minister is the selection of his Cabinet. The Cabinet under Parliamentary democracy is an essential linchpin to government. Ministers, in recent times, especially since John Diefenbaker, not only represent their regions but also reflect the diversity of the Canadian population. Justin Trudeau took the next major step appointing a Cabinet with gender parity.
Each Minister has extensive legislative duties and discretionary power. On his appointment, a thick book prepared by the PCO/PMO setting out his duties, range of activities, and an up-to-date review of all direct matters directly affecting his department people, is presented for his close study and consideration. Of late, each Minister receives a letter from the Prime Minister setting out his priorities. These have been made public.
The Prime Minister also appoints all Ministers and Chairs to various Cabinet Committees. By convention, all Cabinet deliberations are held in the strictest secrecy so that any decision appears to the public to be unanimous. That allows for full and open debate within Cabinet on any and all issues. Only when the archives of Cabinet deliberations are made public years later can we learn what went on.
The Prime Minster chairs the Cabinet and the Priorities and Planning Committee that deals with the day-to-day issues presented in Parliament.
By practice, one Minister is named the 'political minister' for his province and gains oversight and responsibility for all political activities within his region.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Leader Must Be A Leader"
Copyright © 2019 Jerry S. Grafstein.
Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword on Leadership,
John Diefenbaker – The True North,
Lester Bowles 'Mike' Pearson – A Most Underrated Leader,
The Pierre Trudeau Comet,
Joe Clark – Undaunted,
John Turner and The Politics of Purpose,
The Brian Mulroney Charm,
Kim Campbell and The Short Saga of How the First Woman Broke the Leadership Glass Ceiling,
The Artful Juggler – The Most Remarkable Jean Chrétien,
Paul Martin Jr. – Unfulfilled Promise,
The Incredible Rise of Stephen Harper and The New West,
The Justin Trudeau Trajectory,