My Photo
Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ten Criteria for Selecting Candidates

Since my post in May, I’ve spent much of the summer reflecting on the characteristics of community leadership and the collective capacities required to move a pluralistic society such as ours forward on any issue of consequence.

1. One of the tidbits I encountered along the way, was in a talk given by Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, in his closing remarks to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum on January 27, 2008 (click here to see his presentation). He describes his epiphany when he realized that as a conductor he created no music. Yet by empowering his musicians to do great things together they produced great music. This led him to the conclusion that “a powerful leader depends for his power on making other people powerful."

Such an empowering sense of leadership stands in complete contrast to the current notions of romanticized leadership that permeate both our political and management discourse. In fact, if the juvenile behaviour on display in Canada’s current election is any indication, then our practice of democracy would likely fail to win the fifth grader test currently popularized on TV. Therefore, my first selection criterion is whether through their speech and actions a candidate is an enabler, making all Canadians, not just their partisan followers, more powerful. The message I want to hear is what the candidate is willing to do to help me achieve what I want, not do something ostensibly on by behalf and then stick me with the result and the bill.

Obviously, the ability of the candidate to foster serious dialogue about policies or issues is a must-have criterion…

3. But so also is how that candidate conducts that conversation. Is its purpose to advocate for an established position; to find fault with others; to meet out retribution; to market fear; to marginalize hope; to devalue the contributions that each and everyone one of us could potentially make? Does that conversation just seek to add to an already bloated and ineffectual system of rules and oversight?

Or, does that conversation direct us to those possibilities which we as citizens can potentially create together; does it empower us to take ownership of ourselves, our families and our communities; does it make us all accountable to each other for both problems and solutions; does it invite us to be generous and contribute what we can; does it discourage dependence and foster the self-reliance borne of a rich fabric of community life; and finally is that conversation about citizens rather than leaders? Therefore what kind of public conversation are they willing to create?

4. Elections are momentous times. Not just because of their potential to unseat a government, but because of their capability to renew our faith in ourselves, to celebrate the progress we have made together and to reflect on how things could be better still. They are a democracy’s primary tool for social learning. And if we’re not learning together then we’re not moving forward together either, as the latest edition of the Conference Board’s report, How Canada Performs, clearly suggests. So for my vote I want to see which candidate is contributing to our collective learning and presenting a narrative of the collective possibility we can all aspire to.

5. Democracy is about advanced citizenship. It requires informed and engaged citizens. But it is founded on the notion of voters as owners. As much as elections are about selecting representatives they must also be about re-affirming the individual and collective responsibility we all hold for the issues that confront us. It is ultimately the citizen who creates the future and who is accountable for society’s well being. If we did not somewhere believe this then for what purpose do we elect “representatives” to undertake our will? If they are not representing us, then who are they representing – themselves, their sponsors, an oligarchy of special interests?

Rather than re-affirming citizenship, however, the usual mix of sound bites and bribes proffered during an election campaign tend do just the opposite. They absolve citizens of their personal responsibility (it’s someone else’s fault); they obscure the need of citizens to make choices (we can cut taxes and increase services); and they steal the rights of citizens to act as owners of their own life, including the right to the consequences of their actions (behaviour must be controlled, the future can be legislated and morality mandated).

Imagine a parent who permits their child no independence, no mistakes, no risks, no challenges, no consequences to their actions? Such a parent does not permit their child to have a life only an existence. Similarly a candidate who creates no space for either collective decision making or consequences creates no ground for their community to have a life in common. Therefore, my fifth criterion considers: does the candidate affirm my ownership rights as a citizen and facilitate my coming together with other citizens to deal with the issues we share.

6. Asking questions is more important than giving answers. Why? Because in questions there is the space for creating something new. Despite Canada’s recent languid performance on many fronts compared to its OECD peers, it remains a country whose quality of life is desired by most countries in the world. However, to be better than we are we must be innovative. But that is not a problem to be solved with ready made answers. It is a possibility that must be collectively lived into. Stock answers will only serve to recreate the past in the present and the future. Questions create space for possibility. So are the candidates asking questions, or they just giving the same old tired answers?

7. In a pluralistic democracy such as Canada, learning to value our different perspectives and building on that diversity to create something truly transformative is not only an opportunity but an essential requirement for a small country like ours to retain its standard of living and position in the world. The accomplishment of this task does not rest with someone who pits us against each other in strategies of ‘divide and conquer’. It necessitates someone who can catalyze a dialogue that binds us all together and who is continually building bridges from one community to the next.

Such a candidate is a true partner, helping where they can, giving honest advice where asked, but they neither usurp the right of any community to be unique nor permit any community to usurp the rights of others. Such a candidate detects reason in conflicting claims, recognizes where each may be valid, senses where common ground exists, and brings competing communities into harmony. Therefore, I look for the candidate who is a good partner.

8. In a period where leadership has become thoroughly romanticized it can be tough to find an alternative view. Yet one has existed for much, much longer than the current notion of leadership. It is the idea of stewardship, that very traditional notion of holding something in trust for another. My childhood exposure to the principles of democracy usually took the form of stewardship with elected representatives acting as stewards on behalf of citizens. When this modern idea of leadership emerged I do not know but it has done little to strengthen my sense of democracy.

Taking Peter Block’s definition, “stewardship is the choice to preside over the orderly distribution of power”. This means giving people choices, it means empowering them in the pursuit of their choices and operating in service to rather than in control of others. Good stewards balance power; encourage ownership; inspire commitment to a larger community; engage participation and a willingness to be accountable; and ensures that rewards are equitably distributed. My vote belongs to the candidate who is a good steward not a good patriarch.

9. A good friend suggested that we need to find the candidate who in a crunch can be relied upon to take charge. I know this is how many people think but all evidence points to the fallacy of this believe. Good governance is not about having the greatest capacity for being the biggest control freak in exceptional times. Day to day governance is primarily about learning, about teasing out common ground, about making the other guys powerful so that you can draw on their strength as well as your own. And in exceptional circumstances, having mutually rewarding relationships already established is the only recipe that will provide you what you need when you need it. If they are not there, it's likely you'll find yourself in a bun fight among competing organizations all of whom may share the idea that they alone are in charge.

Voting for the fiction of someone “in charge” is a waste, a non starter, since no one has been “in charge” for a long time. Governance now is so extensively distributed among different levels of government, among government, business and the voluntary sectors; and among nations that the person who images themselves “in charge” is likely to be a major roadblock to institutional collaboration. The candidate therefore should be a facilitator, a networker, a broker, a champion who has the honesty to know that being “in charge” is a trap that lets many people off the hook. So my next to last criterion seeks a candidate who recognizes they are not “in charge”, and has the courage to demand that I be.

10. I want a candidate who has a strong commitment to democracy not to the trappings of leadership and a friendly dictatorship. I want a candidate who will inspire collective ownership and commitment. I want a good steward who I can count on to support my efforts and those of my neighbours in our efforts to better our community.

I am one of those that believe that Canada is not our geography, our history, our tall buildings or our roads and railroads. Canada is not the churches we attend, the schools we go to or the faces we present to the world. These are all the results of Canada. Canada itself is the conversation we hold among ourselves. So lastly, who among these candidates carries that conversation to new heights of possibility?

That's my ten criteria for selecting a candidate! Looking at the current roster though, I think I’m setting my self up for a great disappointment.