Thursday, March 29, 2012

The traits of good leadership

In a world bereft of great leaders we suffer collectively from a failure to resolve important issues and make the kinds of progress to improve people’s lives. In the political realm, there are certain traits reflected in great leaders but these traits will vary based on the political terrain one must navigate.  The most challenging times cry out for great leaders who move people and move society forward. The United States had Franklin Roosevelt and Dr Martin Luther King. We had Dr E f Gordon. Latin America had Simon Bolivar. And Africa had Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta. While we have few great leaders today we can identify those characteristics in them that may prove instructive for those to come.

Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher demonstrated tremendous leadership skills; and I have no trouble asserting this even while disagreeing with her position on most issues. Mrs Thatcher conveyed an image of the kind of society she wanted to create—“putting Great back into Britain”—and set about doing so with steely determination. There was never any doubt about what her objective was and she rallied her parliamentary members to this cause. Unfortunately, too many leaders today lack the conviction to hold true to their principles and work to win over public support; rather, they shift and shuffle based on the latest opinion polls. Thatcher would have none of this.

If any leader embodies selfless and principled determination to improve the lives of her people it is Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her National League for Democracy won 80% of the seats in the 1990 elections but was never able to hold power as the military held control; Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for more than 20 years and she became a beacon of hope and progress for her people through her stoic defiance. Rather than leave her country for a life of comfort she knew that her presence would keep the global spotlight on the military dictatorship in Burma and help push forward progress that we are seeing today. 

American President Barack Obama is that rare politician who captivated the hopes and aspirations of people worldwide. At a time of disquiet and sober reflection about tomorrow Mr Obama has been able to inspire millions that, yes, we can create a better place. Americans will have their own divisive battle on the merits of Obama’s leadership as they lead up to November; and the sub-text of a large part of this battle will involve issues Americans have yet to resolve.  For the rest of the world, where America remains the dominant global force, we look to President Obama as a sincere advocate for positive change to better the lives of ordinary people. 

The best leaders inspire, they create hope and they improve people’s lives. We need better leadership in the world today since the issues confronting us will never be resolved by competing commercial interests or ossified bureaucrats; the challenges, moreover, have gotten deeper because of self-interest. The issues will never be resolved if our leaders lack the courage to act decisively and set a vision for our future.  We need clear and decisive action.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Five traits to look for in a politician

As our political parties continue to roll out candidates the public have an opportunity to make a preliminary assessment of these men and women. Each will have their own idiosyncrasies and, for those winning the confidence of a majority of voters in their constituency, bring to the House of Assembly unique and differing voices. These differences notwithstanding there are five common traits which, if possessed by each candidate, would make for better debate and better decisions.

Perhaps the single most important trait any member of parliament should have is the capacity to think critically. Whether that member serves in Cabinet, the backbench or the opposition bench she is obliged to critically examine every piece of legislation brought before her and should have the ability to articulate its essence.  Without a critical mass of critical thinkers the public interest cannot be adequately served.

Secondly, parliamentarians should be diligent in their representation of their constituents’ interests. Too often the complaint is made that either “my vote was taken for granted and no one came to see me” or that the MP disappeared after the election. The communication needs to be sustained throughout the period between elections. More importantly, though, the positions taken by MPs should be mindful of the views held by constituents. This does not mean the parliamentarian is a delegate sent from a constituency, he remains a representative; he is required to liaise with his constituency when considering potentially controversial policies. It may be that an MP will support a position contrary to that of his constituents; he needs to be prepared to fully explain how the national interest, as he sees it, is better served by his own position.

A third important trait desirable in a politician is that she be a team player. A parliamentary group is a collective and not a group of individuals; they have come together, presumably, because they share a common outlook. Differences over policy are meant to be debated in caucus and a common position arrived at. There is no issue for a politician if he or she is occasionally in a minority position; if, however, this is a regular occurrence it will certainly raise questions about that person continuing to serve in that party. 

Leadership skills are a fourth trait. As one of the 36 elected members of the legislature they are all de facto leaders; but in addition to this, any member can be called upon to serve in Cabinet, shadow  cabinet, chair a committee or represent Bermuda’s interests internationally.  In countries with much larger parliaments, representatives can effectively win office and then disappear, say little if anything and then pop up when elections are imminent.  Because of our size we have a limited pool to draw from and so as a consequence, there are demands on most MPs to serve in some other leadership role.

Finally, a publicly defensible code of ethics is a critical trait for all politicians. Serving in Parliament is meant to represent a sacred trust between the voter and the politician. We can all have a robust debate about what this means but there can be no doubt such a code would reject abusing political power for private gain. Anyone guilty of such abuse is simply not suitable for public office.

Voters will soon consider at least 72 men and women as their representative in our House of Assembly. It may prove helpful if these traits in candidates are assessed alongside their political party affiliation.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Irrational negativity is harming us

A cloud of irrational negativity has descended upon our shores.  While this may well be a reaction to many of the challenges Bermuda has faced over the past few years, it makes for more strained public discourse and actually weakens our ability to work collectively to address our more pressing problems. A key characteristic of this irrational negativity is the development of an expansive hyperbolic argument from information which may either be faulty, incomplete, out of context or distorted. Under this scenario accuracy in information in pushed away in favour of outrage and a predilection toward doom and gloom. 

My thinking on this was pricked last week when a colleague—who has done so much to promote Bermuda’s profile internationally—said she has never seen so much negativity in Bermuda: in politics, the workplace, social media, community organisations. 

Two examples bring into relief this irrational negativity. When Premier Cox introduced Mr Scott Simmons as a PLP candidate she pointed out that as press attaché he worked in the White House. A few friends immediately deemed Premier Cox arrogant for placing the Cabinet Building on par with the White House in Washington.  In fact, the building adjacent to the Cabinet Building was named the White House in 1839 when it was built; and there is a plaque on the wall to prove it.  

Last week there were media reports of a Caribbean Conference next week in Cayman, where Premier Cox, Dr Ewart Brown and myself are all scheduled to present papers. Each of us was invited separately: Premier Cox, no doubt as the leader of the largest and most constitutionally advanced UK colony; Dr Brown because of his strong ties;  and myself since I have been working on these issues for more than twenty years and am usually invited to such conferences. For some reason this sparked more than 300 comments on the Bernews website most of which were not simply negative, they expressed outrage.  Claims that this was a government junket, Dr Brown should not be part of a Bermuda contingent, we have more important things to focus on, etc.  These hyperbolic comments were all misplaced: Dr Brown and I are not part of any government delegation and we are certainly paying our own way. These facts were never brought out and the hysteria over an academic conference most people would find exceedingly dry , while initially humourous, reflects a deep seated negativity that needs very little by way of information to gain traction. 

Some of this negativity is fuelled by politically partisan activists but I suspect it is in the main a product of the discontent so many feel today. The challenge for the country is that we weaken our ability to have civic engagement on critical issues if the discourse is wrapped in uncompromising rhetoric. When we dispense with this, then we can make progress.

We have a great opportunity to do this as we consider the further development of our fishing industry. Government has indicated its intention of negotiating with the Japanese fishing industry to issue licenses: a petition has been launched calling on a ban of any long line fishing. With these two polarizing views we have an opportunity to explore the viability of a sustainable and environmentally sound model that could well satisfy both objectives. 

In the short term, this irrational negativity is not likely to diminish; we may have to wait until after the election.  But we must move beyond it if we want to build a stronger Bermuda.