A friend posted the following today:

I'm not going to say much on the upcoming election, mainly out of concern that this post will turn into an undirected, irate rant. Still, the above ad prompted me to scratch a weeks-old itch.

One of the parties in this election is casting its prime ministerial candidate as a strong leader, and attacking his chief competitor as "not a leader." The portrayal includes an effort to conflate demonstrating leadership with exercising authority. This elides the core question regarding positional leadership: are you a leader because of where you sit and the power you wield, or because of what you accomplish and how you accomplish it?

Most people who have encountered both strong authority figures and inspiring leaders will tell you the two sets overlap only in the rarest of cases. My Air Cadet career taught me extensively about positional leadership in a quasi-military organization. However, experiences of the past year have convinced me of the greater potential, difficulty and value of non-positional leadership. I have learned that it is especially useful in situations of great complexity and ambiguity—for example, national government.

The NDP ad covers my point: the Prime Minister has certainly thrown his weight around in the past 2.5 years, but hasn't demonstrated much in the way of actual leadership.

That's just my opinion—but consider the following statements distinguishing leaders from those who merely exercise authority.

  • Leaders inspire others and gain support from everyone by expressing a vision of the future. Authority figures exclude or marginalize those who disagree with them.
  • Leaders take the time to have open, honest discussions about their vision and plans. Authoritarians don't disclose or discuss points that would lead to opposition.
  • Leaders are open to questions from those who don't understand their motivations. Authoritarians see no use in fielding such questions.
  • Leaders show integrity in their actions. Authority figures act on the principle that "the end justifies the means."
  • Authority figures view winning as getting what they want, fastest and first. Leaders view winning as bringing as many people as possible with them to the finish.
  • Authority figures can bully. Bullying is anathema to a leader.
  • Leaders cannot afford to walk away from their mistakes or their followers. Authority figures view themselves as above and distinct from their subjects.

Think what you will about the platforms of the various parties, but please don't accept arbitrary claims about leadership without considering the grounds those claims are made on. If you're a fan of Machiavelli, I've probably failed to convince you of anything; I will say only that we live in a democracy and not a feudal city-state, and remind you that a self-styled Prince can be relied on only to say to you whatever is necessary in order to keep his throne.


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