Paul Wells: Everything I know about leadership

Advice for a party seeking a leader, from Maclean’s Political Editor

A technician cleans the set in preparation for Thursday night's French language leaders debate  Wednesday, September 23, 2015 in Montreal. THE (Paul Chiasson/CP)

The set of the French language leaders debate, September 23, 2015.  (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Tom Mulcair’s NDP is trying to decide whether it’s worth their time to oust a leader who doesn’t want to go. Conservatives are wondering whether Kevin O’Leary, who plays the personification of capitalism on TV, will be a candidate for the Conservative leadership. In Quebec, Parti Québécois members who thought Pierre Karl Péladeau would lead them to the promised land are beginning to struggle with weapons-grade buyer’s remorse.

These are all stories about leadership. If anyone in Canadian politics had a formula for making or bottling successful leaders, they’d be rich. What makes a person able to win and succeed in politics? What is it that attracts loyal followers? Can it be taught?

Related reading: Lessons from a one-time debate moderator

Here is everything I know about political leadership.

Mostly I’ve learned there isn’t one formula. If you have a picture in your head of an ideal leader, you will eventually watch your preferred leader get beaten by somebody who doesn’t match your image at all.

One Saturday morning in 2002 I ran a column in the National Post endorsing Jim Flaherty as the successor to Mike Harris at the top of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party. That night I went to the victory party for the man who’d beaten Flaherty to become Ontario’s new Conservative premier, Ernie Eves.

Eves’s supporters couldn’t believe I’d been more impressed by someone else. Wasn’t Ernie eloquent? (Not particularly.) Wasn’t he charismatic? (Nope.) Didn’t he have real-world business experience? (Not a huge amount.) A prevailing line of speculation at the Eves victory party held that I must have endorsed Flaherty because my paper’s Liberal owners wanted to sabotage the Progressive Conservatives. When I swore I was sincere, more than one Eves volunteer sought to shut down the conversation by saying, “Yeah, sure, whatever. But come on: Premier Dalton McGuinty?”

McGuinty—younger than Eves, all knees and elbows, not profound—was a joke in their mind, and would be seen by the voters to be one. And that would be that. But of course McGuinty did beat Eves, and 12 years later Ontario is still in the grip of a Liberal dynasty.

Cet homme ne sera jamais premier ministre du Québec,” Lucien Bouchard once said of Jean Charest. “Il n’en est pas digne!” (This man will never be Quebec’s premier. He’s not worthy.) But of course, that choice was not Bouchard’s to make. Quebecers disagreed with him, and Charest ended up serving as premier for twice as long as Bouchard had. You see this pattern all the time. A leader written off by his opponents ends up beating them. It happened to Jean Chrétien (“Is this a prime minister?” his opponent’s ad said, incredulously), and to Stephen Harper, and to Justin Trudeau. Each seemed custom-built for his opponents’ mockery, until he beat them.

Related: Wells’s rules, annotated 

So never hurry to write someone off.

But just as it’s possible to underestimate certain leaders, it’s possible to overestimate others. I think that’s likeliest to happen when dealing with a leader who enjoyed great success in some other line of work. Politics is its own set of skills. Just because you owned a hockey team (like Peter Pocklington, the Edmonton Oilers owner who took a pasting at the hands of Brian Mulroney in the 1983 Progressive Conservative leadership race), or just because you used to play on one (the great Habs goalie Ken Dryden) doesn’t mean you have any kind of future in politics. In fact it’s probably a hindrance, because heavyweights from the real world don’t normally come to politics with the abject humility they’ll need to learn the ropes. Yes, this is one of many reasons why Kevin O’Leary should probably keep his day job.

What does work? Strong opinions and an absolutely mammoth ego. Moderation, an eagerness to round edges, and a need to be liked are all overrated. Too many people won’t like you. It works best if you enjoy it. Exhibit A here is the contrast between Joe Clark, whom everyone liked for decades after he stopped winning, and Stephen Harper, whom almost nobody liked during the decade he was unbeatable. It also helps to have some kind of big idea about what you’re in politics to do. A love of the process for its own sake dooms you to life as a strategist. You really have to want to do something with your time in politics.

After I had covered politics for many years, I decided it’s also best if a prospective leader has already lost, badly, at least once. Politics deals all its practitioners the occasional crushing disappointment. An ability to bounce back is handy. How, then, to explain a Justin Trudeau? Perhaps it’s that he’s lost more often than we usually reckon. His parents’ marriage fell apart. His brother Michel died young. He’s popular, for now, but maybe popularity isn’t what drives him. Maybe it’s not on the list of things he needs.

None of this adds up to dependable advice for a party seeking a leader. Trust your gut. If you pick a leader you can’t stand, and then discover voters can’t either, nobody wins. Pick a leader you want to follow. Ideally not Kevin O’Leary.

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Paul Wells: Everything I know about leadership

  1. I agree.

    O”leary is just the Conservative version of Justin Trudeau. granted, O’Leary actually knows how business and the economy works, and he is much smarter than Trudeau, and sure O’Leary has earned his wealth through hard work….but at the end of the day, they are both just in in for the celebrity.

    • You could not be more wrong! Trudeau was (and is) wanted by every charity group in the country because of his charisma and personality. I believe he actually cares about Canada as opposed to O’Leary who worships only money and would sacrifice 10 million Canadian jobs to China and Mexico if it made him a dollar. Wealth does not translate into ethics, morals or intelligence.

      • And Trudeau shook down each and every one of those charity groups for speaking free while he was a Member of Parliament…so he is actually exactly like O’Leary.

      • Tom,

        If you actually believe that, you are deluded. Though he was a bit of a cold fish, Harper is actually the Prime Minister who actually cared about Canadians; and his policies are a reflection of that.

        Trudeau, is just after the celebrity. That is why he spends more time taking selfies with his “fans” than any other activity. Do you actually think Justin Trudeau has actually cracked a policy book to begin the understanding of what is required to run the country?

        Sorry Tom….Justin Trudeau is to Prime Ministers, what the Kardashians are to actual movie stars.

  2. The author left out a couple of the big and most important things to be a leader, and that’s ‘Character’ and ‘Authenticity’, is he or she really who they say they are, I guess that’s where packaging of your leader comes in, can they pull it off, and make he or she look authentic. It’s better to find that natural ability, other than to have to package it all the time. You may have to package your leader many times before the election, and that’s where good acting skills come in, if you can’t act the part, your not authentic and people can see through that, they saw through Harper and Muclair. A good leader has to be honest with the people, voters today have become more astute and educated in politics, and know when a leader is selling them snake oil. Finally, never underestimate an underdog.

    • Just to add, I doesn’t hurt to be good looking and attractive, both he or she.

    • I agree that character is a big one. At the last election I supported Trudeau because of the character of Harper and Mulcair. Harper refusing to answer more than three questions at press conferences really rankled me. And Mulcair’s promising everything to everyone and still balance the budget was blatant lying. Trudeau also promised everything to everyone, but he was honest about how he was going to pay for it.

      Authenticity I’m less worried about. Every politician stops by the county fair to eat a hotdog, and everyone knows they wouldn’t do that if the cameras weren’t rolling. There are a lot of different people in this country, it’s great if everyone has something they have in common with the leader.

      • Well, AFAIK the LPC election platform was not fully costed; e.g. how to fund implementation of all of the TRC’s 94 “calls to action” that the LPC promised to fully implement.
        Additionally, at least one of those that was costed was just plain wrong – the notion that the middle class tax cut would be fully paid for by the extra tax bracket for high income earners.

        Additionally, despite being the self-proclaimed government of evidenced based policy, it ignored what experts were saying about the feasibility of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 (a target pulled out of thin air during the election), and continued to claim it was doable until it became painfully obvious it wasn’t.

        Given the above and other actions, my take on the current LPC government is that it’s not like the LPC Chretien government. This one is not terribly concerned with the feasibility of its promises and how to finance them, and is more concerned with activism whatever the cost. Some folks will take comfort in this, others, such as fiscal conservatives and Blue Liberals, not so much.

      • Partridge wrote:

        “Trudeau also promised everything to everyone, but he was honest about how he was going to pay for it.”

        I think this needs some corrective editing to make it more factual.

        ahem: “Trudeau also promised everything to everyone, but he was honest about how he was NOT going to pay for it.

        That is how you get deficits. And by the way…if you think a measly 10B will be the limit, you are deluding yourself.

    • Carpet Bomber,

      If you look at trudaeu and see “character” or Authenticty……..I can only provide you one line of advice.

      If you ever receive an email from a Nigerian Prince requesting you send him money…..don’t do it.

      It is about as authentic a request; as is Trudeau’s Character.

      When you saw Stephen Harper….it was easy to preface the name with Prime Minister. You can’t say that about Justin Trudeau. It just doesn’t ring as authentic. Even Trudeau can’t make himself believe it.

      On the other hand…Prime Minister Selfie is not only more realistic…we’ve actually seen it.

  3. The party should approach Brad Wall. He is the premier with the highest approval rating despite being in office for quite some time and the fact that his province is in a recession. I have no doubt he could translate that to the whole country. He doesn’t apologize for being who we are. When I heard that Obama opened his own oilsands in Utah is year; started selling oil internationally; continues to mine coal which he sells to Beijing; has plans to drill in the Arctic and continues to frack in North Dakota, it occurred to me and apparently at long last to Rachel Notley, that Obama didn’t turn down Keystone because Canada isn’t doing enough on climate change but that he sees Canada as competitor in the oil business. He made no promises to leave oil in the ground at the Paris climate summit. His reasons….because the Republicans wouldn’t let him but he had no difficulty using his special powers as president to make changes to gun laws despite the NRA and Republicans and the 2nd amendment of the constitution. Now we have the mayor of Montreal who is dumping raw sewage saying there should be no east pipeline but he is happy to buy oil from despots and have it shipping via ocean tankers and accept dirty money generated from oil sold in the west. Who is the only one who spoke up? Brad Wall.

  4. Everything Paul Wells knows about “leadership” is actually everything Paul Wells knows about what has helped a political party win elections. Which has very little to do with genuine leadership or the kind of leadership most reasonable Canadians would like to see in Ottawa. When Stephen Harper’s ultra-cynical, scorched-earth, Republican-style manipulation of democracy is held up an example of a “successful leader,” we have a problem: a problem to which journalists immersed in Ottawa’s dysfunctional culture continue to contribute.

    • Mark Claxton wrote:
      “When Stephen Harper’s ultra-cynical, scorched-earth, Republican-style manipulation of democracy is held up an example of a “successful leader,” we have a problem”

      but what he meant was, ” When Stephen Harper’s ultra-efficient, down to earth Conservative style governance took away all of the freebies I was getting without making any effort….I have a problem”

      There. Fixed it for you Mikey.

  5. It’s appropriate that Paul confirms that everything he knows about leadership amounts to just slightly more than nothing. More often than not, he and his fellow pundits champion the losers as leaders.

    • Isn’t that the point of this article? Given that one, pundit or not, cannot predict who will eventually win some future election, do not choose a leader on their winnability.

  6. O’Leary could win it if he ran… he’s our Trump in the hole. Just rude and stupid enough to pull it off. Hope he doesn’t though!

  7. Leadership is first and foremost about integrity and honesty. If those are missing then we the voters have been duped. Leadership is about truly seeing the issues and understanding who you are serving and what they need. Servant leadership. You don’t have to have the skill set to fix each of these but you better be able to put an ‘educated and experienced’ team together who also have integrity and honesty who can get the work done. Leadership is about being a strong communicator and being able to communicate your vision with the goal of it being a shared vision but to also be able to change if necessary as circumstances change. It means showing up everyday to get the job done. Finally it is about listening to and caring about the people that you are leading and balancing the needs of the country with the needs of the people. Leaders command respect through their work ethic and dedication.

    Kevin O’Leary has disdain for the people. He would make a disastrous leader. Justin Trudeau dances around leadership. He understands the ideals but he is not listening to the people and he just doesn’t seem to ‘get it’. Egos are the enemy of leaders. Harper had his set of issues too.. Finally we the people need to stop looking for the flashy, loud mouth individuals and see the strength of character in humility and the value in hard work. Canadian politicians have always been known to be boring, hard working and dedicated. This new flashy celebrity will not serve any of us well.

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