BTC: The Leader v. The Salesman


Back, for a moment, to David Foster Wallace’s take on John McCain.

Near the end of that little book Foster Wallace arrives at his definitive division of political leadership—laying out a distinction between “leaders” and “salesmen.”

“A real leader,” he writes, “isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with ‘inspire’ being used here in a serious and non-cliche way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think we are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own … In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own…

“There is a difference,” he continues later, “between a great leader and a great salesman. There are similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest—if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interests (and it really might be)—still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself.”

This leads to a consideration of whether John McCain (circa 2000) could quite literally sell himself as a real leader, without, in the process, becoming a salesman. (see also, Barack Obama circa 2008).

But, for the moment, let’s consider something else. Namely, when was the last time Canada had a real leader?

By Foster Wallace’s somewhat predictable measure, America’s last real leader was John F. Kennedy. Among JFK’s predecessors and peers, Foster Wallace counts Lincoln, Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Charles de Gaulle, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Marshall (George? Thurgood?) and Eisenhower. He dismisses Reagan as a salesman particularly adept at convincing you of his own leadership. (Writing before the 2000 election, Foster Wallace is obviously in no position to celebrate the bold vision of George W. Bush’s call to keep shopping in the days after 9/11.)

Now, obviously, it is difficult to have this discussion without getting into the differences of partisanship and personal opinion. But let’s at least pretend to get into this objectively.

Our present Prime Minister is almost certainly a salesman. There is perhaps a debate to be had there, but I suspect even the man himself would admit his basic salesmanship—committed to a specific and personal bill of goods. Read his speeches. Listen to him in the House. This is not a man particularly keen on inspiring people. (And there is, quite possibly, nothing wrong with that. Depending, of course, on the quality of the goods for sale.)

Paul Martin wanted to be a leader, and often made desperate attempt at talking like one, but never quite figured out what he wanted to inspire people to do. He was a directionless leader, if such a thing is possible. Chretien was a salesman, disarming in his syntax. As was Mulroney, obvious to a fault. At their best they made people feel nice about the nation and its notion, but such stuff never amounted to more than surface-level pride. We’ll disqualify Campbell, Turner and Clark as obviously neither particularly skilled at leadership nor salesmanship. 

Which brings us to Trudeau. He is, for sure, the most obvious candidate. Setting aside the standard moaning from right and left on his various misdeeds (creating the National Energy Program, invoking the War Measures Act, stifling the career of Robert Stanfield), it’s objectively impossible to deny the effect he had on a great number of people, especially young people who might not otherwise have cared about the political process. You can, perhaps, debate whether he what he inspired amounted to greatness. But there was an appeal to greatness. A rare call that was received with rare response. (Trudeau, of course, remains the only Prime Minister with a trademarked mania to his name.)

A case can be made for Pearson (including a rhetorical slapping of the Foster Wallace-approved de Gaulle), but maybe much of his legacy (health care, the flag, avoiding Vietnam, winning the Nobel) is elevated by hindsight. Mackenzie King led the country to war, but “conscription if necessary, but necessarily conscription” are hardly the words of stirring, resolute and bold leadership. (If there’s a war-time leader to be lauded maybe it’s Robert Borden.) And with all due respect to Sir Mackenzie Bowell and his awe-inspiring facial hair, only two others seem likely candidates for the leadership canon—John A. Macdonald and Wilfred Laurier. The first for possessing whatever it took to be first, the latter for defining much of what was to come.

So that’s three, maybe four, real leaders in 141 years of history. And, to repeat a point Foster Wallace makes about JFK, it’s been decades since anyone had chance to vote for one, those under the age of 35 having no memory of anything but salesman winning the highest office. (The explanation for voter apathy is always the most obvious.)

Why is this? What does it mean? And what does it matter? Not sure, really. Canadians may tend toward more pragmatic political leaders (when we talk about our former leaders, we tend to talk about their policy achievements, most of those having to do with difficult-to-outright-despise social programs). We may prefer our politicians go about their business quietly and inoffensively without demanding too much of our attention. Or we may lack the self-seriousness necessary to justify and provoke a leader bent on inspirational profundity. (Barack Obama’s lofty rhetoric, for instance, might seem a bit odd if he weren’t aiming to become the most powerful man in the world. Indeed, even in contesting that position, he’s criticized for seeming elitist.)

All of that may be true, if not terribly flattering. But then the public’s antipathy toward the present party leaders is well-noted and regularly agonized over. And it’s rather depressing to think the country would reject a candidate who loudly and smartly offered something better. So let’s not think that. Optimistically speaking, perhaps we’d welcome a real leader, but don’t see one presently (though, to complete the circle, we may lack such a leader because we generally fail to demand one).

The good news, perhaps, is this: on average, we’re getting a real leader every 35 years or so. In other words, we’re due.


BTC: The Leader v. The Salesman

  1. Neat post.

    But you’ve obviously not seen Harper’s ads which clearly state that Dion is NOT a leader.

    By implication, therefore, Harper IS. How can you argue with that?

    I’d also like to suggest two other names that may qualify as leaders in the Canadian political context – Rene Levesque, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Ed Broadbent.

    Neither of them were PMs, but in their own way, I think they would qualify as political leaders.

    Canada has had leaders outside of politics. Terry Fox, for example.

  2. I never voted for the guy, so perhaps this qualifies as a non-partisan assessment…
    Dismissal of Mulroney is too easy, especially in light of the recent Schreiber stuff. But as far as good-of-the-country before personal-gain, please approach the retrospectoscope:
    GST instead of manufacturer’s tax; free trade agreement, successfully defended before the electorate; acid rain treaty; tweaking the Commonwealth to deal with South Africa & apartheid; unsuccessful yet principled defense of the Charlottetown Accord.
    That’s not a bad list in the leader over salesman department, no?

  3. I agree with your conclusion that only Trudeau, Laurier and MacDonald could be considered ‘leaders’. I also think Anon’s nomination of Levesque has some merit, though I don’t know enough about the man to be certain.

    Obama is the first politician I have witnessed that has the aura/charisma to be a ‘leader’, I was a child when Trudeau was around.

    As a libertarian/conservative, I think it’s to our credit that we don’t have tradition of leaders here in Canada. To me, these types of leaders have a slight fascist quality to them. We are supposed to disregard our own wants and desires for the greater good. These movements seem to be cult-like and I find them very disturbing.

  4. I think this particular posting is all over the place. Stephen Harper as a salesman? He has nothing in common with any salesman I have ever met.

    If anything, he is more of a hard-nosed CEO who knows what he wants and will do whatever he can to achieve his particular ends (which may only be to keep being the CEO). He has much in common with Chretien, another political bruiser with particular goals. Old John A Macdonald was cut from the same cloth.

    Paul Martin was the classic Chief Financial Office who get to be CEO by default: failure usually follows in such cases.

    JFK, Trudeau and now Obama have the ability to whip up hysteria and enthusiasm in people quite out of proportion to their abilities or achievements. This is not leadership and neither is it salesmanship. Preaching might be a better term.

    The only political salesman in the modern era who jumps to mind is Bill Clinton.

  5. Anon: If you extend the question to non-PMs, you do get a few more options. I suspect someone would nominate Tommy Douglas. Some Quebeckers might speak for Lucien Bouchard.

    Madeyoulook: That’s a pretty good argument for Mulroney. The question is whether he “inspired” the populace to do better, be better, work harder. JFK’s ultimate leadership moment would be “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That shouldn’t stand as a legendarily profound request, but in modern politics it borders on the preposterous. It’s barely an equivalent example, but consider Dion’s plea for small sacrifice in the interests of long-term environmental sustainability and the hostility that’s received in some quarters (“You want me to pay a few hundred more dollars a year in the interests of staving off environmental catastrophe?! Surely you jest!”). There could be something to be said for Mulroney in this regard, but I admit I’m unaware of such a moment.

    JWL: Ah, fascism. Foster Wallace does acknowledge that by his definition of leadership, you’d have to include Hitler. Though I’d argue you actually don’t. (Hitler didn’t inspire the citizenry to overcome their fears and insecurities, he incited them to follow those impulses.)

  6. jwl, surely you don’t believe that if someone can dissuade you from acting solely for yourself and instead doing something for your neighbours, society, or country, that that’s a bad thing?

    I mean, isn’t that technically the reasoning behind Christianity?

    One of the problem with Canadian politics, and some might argue Canadians in general, is our fear of being bold. “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” were some of the words that started the American advance to the moon, and with it, their technological and scientific advantage that only now is starting to fade.

    We need the same type of thing for the green movement, whether you believe it’s to combat CO2 emissions or to prepare for the aftermath of peak oil or the world water crunch. We need someone who isn’t afraid to challenge us to have goals more lofty than saving a few pennies on a double-double.

    Problem is, I don’t know anybody who might fit the bill. Harper? Dion? Layton? May? Duceppe even? Let’s be real.

    I’m starting to think my next vote is going to have to be for the party of Brian Salmi. At least their policies show some guts.

  7. “surely you don’t believe that if someone can dissuade you from acting solely for yourself and instead doing something for your neighbours, society, or country, that that’s a bad thing?”

    T Thwim

    I get personal satisfaction from helping others so I am acting solely for myself and helping others at the same time.

    I also think the individual comes before society and country. When people start putting aside their own interests, and start doing things for the abstract idea of country, then that’s exactly how we end up with communist, fascist, authoritarian or totalitarian governments.

    I think John Locke is brilliant and I am guessing you favour Rousseau.

  8. The question is whether [Mulroney] “inspired” the populace to do better, be better, work harder
    Thank you for honouring my comment with a reply. Certainly I (and many others?) would argue that the GST, replacing the insanely destructive manufacturer’s tax, helped us do better, and the Free Trade Agreement, by no means a political slam dunk at the time, has enforced a discipline of competitiveness that needed a boost in this country. And the population heard the arguments for and against, and decided to endorse Mulroney’s vision in a nearly single issue “free trade election.” I voted Liberal in that election, and I am very glad (looking back now) that the country outvoted me. So, using your criteria for nomination, I will stubbornly keep him on my list.

  9. I have always been curious to this political need of some people to have the ‘ Great Leader ‘ inspire them to do something whatever it is and then when the something whatever it is does not get done (generally because the people to begin with do not want to do whatever it is to solve the problem and the leader fails they blame the ‘ Great Leader ‘ personally I think this is a serious character flaw in quite a few people. After all folks you think the environment is a serious enough problem – then go strict vegetarian, buy recycled clothes give up the combusion engine don’t have children and move back to woodstock. Do you honestly believe that canadian politics is awry then suck it up and go do something about it. If the parties do not represent your views then as old Preston says easy enough form another party and hey you can even ask Stevie boy for advice on how to actually get an agenda through elsewhise it is all noise and fury and as they say signifies nothing.

  10. Wayne, it’s simple reality. People don’t do anything for nothing. However, sometimes the things they do things for can be very ephemeral. A sense of participation in a greater project, for instance.

    This is what a great leader can (and often does) provide. Getting an agenda through isn’t leadership, it’s being effective. (Although it may not be effective in a good way, but that’s an entirely different issue)

    Individual efforts are always key, this is true, but without leadership you have a million different directions people are going, and as I always like to remember “A point in every direction is the same as no point at all” What a leader does is take all these individual efforts and focus them. What a great leader does is inspire others who might not be so inclined that the focus is a worthwhile one, and so get the effort of even more people toward a common goal.

    Collective effort can provide rewards far greater than the sum of the effort applied.

  11. Hey T. my inner cynic comes out now and then. You are quite correct and that is why great leaders are special treasures as they can on occasion motivate their followers to rise above their own human nature and sometimes do amazing things. As an example why do they call him ‘ Alexander The Great ‘ because he lead by example first into most battles at the beginning and he coaxed, cajoled, threatened, blackmailed and bribed his generals into conquering most of the known world at the time and outmanouvered all his enemies. Leaders such as him though are very rare and personally I think that is whyhistory tags them with a ‘ Great ‘ handle.

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