Can the Left in Canada become more effective if they change their approach to leadership?
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After years of participation and frustration on the Left in Canada, I have come to the conclusion that the problem is a lack of effective leadership. I have, therefore, compiled a list of the needed qualities required by good or great leaders – and what is missing among progressive groups right now.
By doing this, I hope to show why we are losing the battle for hearts and minds, and any hope to save democracy and the planet.
Leadership is a set of behaviours used to help people align their collective direction, to execute strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization.
First, what is leadership? The best definition I found on google is:
“Leadership is a set of behaviours used to help people align their collective direction, to execute strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization.”
I’ll use this definition as a general guideline for my 10 Reasons, adding some features of my own.
1) Leaders Not Leading: Recently I’ve watched the trajectory of two groups in a mid-sized Canadian city. One is attempting to save a natural area in the community and, so far, it has succeeded. For two years, it has used a variety of tactics from a petition, rally at city hall, media releases, an art exhibit, and more. It has generated enthusiasm and a sense that someone is in control and cares. The group’s leadership has been focussed, reliable, responsive, and determined. Even the media have responded with regular coverage!
The other group has just drifted. It holds rambling monthly Zoom meetings, members’ ideas are half-heartedly welcomed and rarely followed through. People concerned about the increasing climate crisis sign up only to be let down. Membership is diminishing. What is there to be part of other than idle talk? There have been no tangible victories. The word “slacktivism” constantly comes to mind. There is an art to leadership – inspiring people, helping them reach beyond themselves, giving them a sense of inclusion. Sadly, this seems all too rare.
2) Set of Behaviours: I’ve belonged to too many progressive organizations over the decades. There’s often a discrepancy between walking the walk and talking the talk. For example, I’ve been around green groups whose members buy and throw out plastic with abandon. How can they convince others to care about the planet when they clearly don’t? Leaders don’t have to be purists, but they do have to help people envision a better lifestyle and world.
The good news is that groups aren’t as white-male dominated as they used to be. The bad news is that some white and non-white female leaders have adopted the elitist, undemocratic methods of their predecessors. That’s not liberation. It’s co-optation. Generally, progressives can’t lead by following bad examples. We have to carve out our own, sensitive ways of doing things; break away from the domineering, elitist styles of the past – difficult though that may be.
3). Aligning Collective Direction: I remember a union organizer telling me that he disrupted a serious discussion about his union’s next campaign when he asked the simple question: “How do we know when we’ve won?” He then went on to explain to the disgruntled union leadership that, if their goal was to save a particular social programme, the means and end should be clearly defined. On the other hand, if the goal was to print 100,000 flyers which were left in the trunks of union members’ cars, that, too, should be articulated.
Right now, there are too many vaguely defined campaigns for this and against that. For a carbon emissions cap. Against fossil-fuel subsidies. But where are the clearly defined strategies and tactics – other than signing online petitions and so-called Days of Action where too few citizens demonstrate in front of MPs’ offices across the country with a grumpy sense of “same old same old.” People need a sense of direction and an objective, so they can tell if and when they’ve won.
4) Executing Strategic Plans: There is no grand vision on the Left, so how can there be effective strategies? We don’t take ourselves seriously enough! We aren’t reframing the national dialogue so that people can truly envision alternatives. For example – a small one – I am trying to remove plastic from my life. We are surrounded by the stuff, so it takes a lot of effort and attitude adjustment to treat it like the destructive material that it is. People have to see our plastic-ridden society in a whole new, sharper light. Viscerally. Only then can they develop a strategy to overcome it. This isn’t easy, but it feels very good with every purge!
If you check the word strategy, it is usually defined in terms of war or business. My favourite is that it’s “about understanding the competition and preparing a plan to match/surpass the potential of the rivals.” How often do left-wing groups do this? Not many, based on my experience. There’s rarely an attempt to deeply examine the “competition” or issue before preparing a detailed, multi-faceted plan. I used to suggest a simple timeline for groups as a basic road map to help strategize. Few agreed. Instead, most actions are ad hoc, last-minute, and too often, ineffective. The Left needs to train progressives in strategic principles and methods – the way the military and businesses do. I suggest a cross-country training programme!
5) Continually Renewing: Once a group, movement, society is moving and creating change, renewing comes more easily. One step forward, often leads to another step forward. Actions inspire and generate more actions. Of course, inertia has the same effect – greater inertia. It’s not rocket science. We have to get ourselves into a dynamic zone! This takes leaders with originality, imagination, and courage. It’s helpful to turn to Karl Marx on this one. I’m no expert, but he talks about the dialectic. Everything is in flux and contains potential. The rising sun is on its way to sunset and another sunrise. This leaves room for constant change and, we hope, improvement.
Again, any definition of the word renewal is mainly business rather than progressive organization related. Such is our society’s focus! Relevant nevertheless. Example: “Today’s dynamic and competitive business environment requires innovation. Self-satisfied organizations cannot stand up to the remarkable external forces at play in today’s turbulent global economy. Organizations of the current era require exceptional quality of leadership and business processes if they are to renew themselves and become a receptive and motivated enterprise proficient of sustaining success …Thus, organizational renewal results in preventing corporate entropy.” Enough said.
6). Terrific Tactics: There was a time in Canada when left-wing leaders were household names – Bob White of the Canadian Auto Workers, Leo Gerard of the Steelworkers, Judy Rebick of the women’s group NAC. As the sold-out Brian Mulroney government began negotiating the NAFTA agreement, an amazing coalition, the Action Canada Network (ACN), was put together to oppose it. There were more than 40 groups, including unions, religious groups, the Assembly of First Nations.
Incredibly, on the day that NAFTA was being signed in 1993 with Mulroney in Ottawa, President Bush Sr. in Washington, and President Salinas in Mexico – progressives hadn’t managed to stop this corporate Bill of Rights – several ACN leaders attended the “historic” event in Centre Block on Parliament Hill. One by one, they stood up and denounced Mulroney, and were dragged out! Tony Clarke of the ACN staff, Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians, Jean-Claude Parrot, Postal Workers, Judy D’Arcy, CUPE, and more. A video was later put together with these ousted disrupters marching arm-in-arm down the Centre Block steps to the tune of “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty. Can you imagine this today? We should try!
7). Appreciating Allies: One reason I am frustrated with progressive inaction and compromise is that I’ve seen and experienced better! The Bob Rae government let Ontarians down in many ways – why didn’t he have the guts to tell people that the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement prevented him from bringing in his promised public car insurance? I remember a top union leader saying he had more influence in David Peterson’s Liberal government than Rae’s – why doesn’t the NDP appreciate its left-wing allies?
Luckily, I saw what government can do when it does reach out! In the early Rae years, a few of us in the Ministry of Northern Affairs and Mining saved towns for a living. Loans, loan guarantees, worker buy-outs, economic diversification. This was mainly done in spite of the premier’s office rather than because, although they liked to take credit for our victories. I remember calling a union leader to ask if he agreed with his factory’s Canadian manager purchasing the business from the American owner. There was silence on the line and finally, “What? The government wants to know what the workers think?” With the help of a long-time and dedicated bureaucrat, Arne Sorenson, the deal was hammered out by teleconference IN A DAY. That old phrase “ political will” comes to mind. The Right displays it in spades; the Left not so much. Why do we doubt our own legitimacy? And our allies?
8). Professionalism or Perish: Leadership provides or directs others to the tools and mechanisms needed to win. Sadly, too often, well-meaning citizens are led by well-meaning but naive leaders and the battle is lost. However, over the years, I have witnessed some wonderful victories. In Kingston, the Save Our Prison Farms group made up of nuns, farmers, and others actually saved the local prison farms! Other residents have prevented unsuitable development in parts of the city.
But, things have changed. Citizens in Ontario – and probably other provinces- are being overwhelmed by undemocratic governments and our basic democratic rights are being eroded. Doug Ford has taken a sledge hammer to municipal governments, creating so-called Strong Mayors – thus weakening City Councils – turning Environmental Impact Studies over to the pro-developer private sector, and more. The citizen foot soldiers of yesterday are being met with tanks and bombs. This means that our leaders must be better trained, more professional. We, too, need improved weapons! Unfortunately, I don’t get a sense that that need is being recognized.
9) Message Conveyed: We face a Climate Emergency that will affect all aspects of our lives, and even our lives! And yet, how many green and other groups still meet monthly? As Seth Klein points out in his book, The Good War, a sense of urgency is not being conveyed by the Trudeau government, the media, or, I would argue, most progressive groups. That’s not the leadership or the underlying message we require right now.
Remember the concept of War Rooms in election campaigns or, yes, war? Why aren’t groups setting up such strategic entities in person or online? No more monthly meetings! Tour Winston Churchill’s WWII War Rooms in central London and you will see that people actually lived there underground for years in cramped conditions. They had a sense of urgency! Our country is on fire; it is being attacked; there are enemies within destroying us. And yet, we act as though there is no real hurry to deal with the deadly issues we face. This is not the Good War leadership that will save us. Shame!
10). Democratic Leadership?: In discussing leadership, I don’t mean to suggest that leaders should have a lot more power in a democracy than the rest of us. Sadly, we have seen so many distortions of leadership under our representative system that we accept less than we need or deserve. I recently listened to a BBC Radio drama about former UK Prime Minister Thatcher, as she bullied and demeaned the men in her Tory cabinet. The excellent writer Michael Harris wrote a book perfectly titled Party of One about the nasty and destructive Harper years. Isn’t the prime minister in our parliamentary system supposed to be First Among Equals?
And look again at Doug Ford aggressively destroying not only our local democracies, but our public education, our public healthcare – after only 18 per cent of the electorate voted him in. Something is wrong with how we choose leaders and allow them to act! We need to redefine our democracy at every level from groups to parties to governments. Excite people about the importance of their voices and participation! In fact, at the base of all my comments is the need for thoughtful, profound culture change. We have to lessen the grip that centuries of competitive-based, self-centred, elitist capitalism has on us. It will take work! Who wants to lead the way?