The Leadership Crisis

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The Leadership CrisisIn his latest book, The Leadership Crisis, Gord Hume defines seven characteristics – the Seven Cs – of great political leadership*. See how many you can recognize as attributes within our own council:

  1. Competencies, including people, organizational, business and strategic.
  2. Character, and its traits, values and virtues; integrity.
  3. Commitment, including aspiration, engagement, perseverance and sacrifice.
  4. Charisma, that unquantifiable attribute that political leaders either have or don’t.
  5. Communication, through effective messaging that inspires, informs and influences.
  6. Context, an understanding of what’s going on around them.
  7. Culture, and how to develop, create, change and advance that culture

I think you can see for yourself that these traits are notable by their absence in most of our council. Just take any one of the seven – say, communications. How can a council that conducts so much of its business behind closed doors communicate well, if at all? And how does it communicate? Only through poorly-designed, improperly formatted ads in a newspaper no one reads and via a dull “newsletter” riddled with mistakes but no news.

Culture? There’s more culture in a cup of yogurt than in all of council. Competencies? How can a group that refuses to learn from its peers and hand over control of policy making to staff be competent?

One can, of course, learn and grow on the job, assuming one breaks out of the ideological shell that cocoons them. Which, in 18 months in office, still hasn’t happened. But, like winning the lottery or being struck by a meteorite, there’s still a chance for it to happen. A very slim chance, but we must be optimistic, despite the odds.

There are many books on leadership on the shelves these days. What makes Hume’s book different is the context of leadership within Canadian municipal politics.** You can read an excerpt of the book here. As Hume writes on his website:

Ego, ambition, fear, doubt, passion. Politicians may have a fervent belief in the rightness of their position or a visceral dislike for another person, party or platform, but these should always be tempered by the need to inspire collective action to move any agenda forward.

Hume’s books are among the most thought-provoking, engaging books I’ve ever read on municipal/local politics. It’s sad to note that perhaps only one or two (at most) on our own council will read this book. It is another important publication on municipal governance they will actively ignore. This council already stopped subscribing to the Municipal World magazine because they already know everything – despite most of them being new to the position – and doesn’t want their preconceived views polluted by advice from peers or experts. So exhorting them to read it will fall on mostly deaf ears (I have hope for two of the nine…).

In order to inspire, as Hume suggests politicians should do, politicians must have a vision. They must also believe in a collective agenda to share it with – an inclusive rather than exclusive approach to politics. You can see how we’re already losing at this game. Hume writes (p. 162):

The ability to inspire is one of the greatest attributes of leadership. People want to see a vision for their community… They want to be inspired to be part of a larger collective process or accomplishment.

Inspiration and ideology don’t play well together. In fact, they are polar opposites. Ideology is not inclusionary, does not work for collective accomplishments or the greater good. Ideologues have no interest in inspiring others: they simply tell others how, when and where to do what they are told.

The Northwest Territories sponsors a series of workshops for aspiring municipal politicians. One of the modules is on leadership, which the website notes:

Exercising leadership and authority requires good ability to aim for results based on principles that serve the general good of communities. This also extends to getting results by motivating community members to work towards a shared vision of the future.

Note the keywords: principles, general good, motivating, shared, vision… and results.

Ask yourself what results have this council produced in 18 months? Aside, that is, from ruining our town’s reputation with our neighbours, with local developers, with our municipal partners. Aside from demoralizing staff. Aside from protecting themselves from public scrutiny. Aside from meeting in secret many, many times to decide issues that should be discussed in public. Aside from caving in to the whims and fancies of the administration. Aside from hiring out-of-town consultants and lawyers to decide our local policies and directions. Aside from dismissing our experienced and professional water utility board and replacing them with their own, inexperienced and inept members. Aside from raising your taxes and water rates… well, you get the picture.

Results should be positive accomplishments, things we can be proud of, things that benefit the greater community. Those are, so far, rarer than hen’s teeth. True, council did pass a bylaw making it illegal to toss birdseed on the ground. And they did refuse to save taxpayers $100-$150,000 by hiring a new, permanent CAO to replace the interim one. And it gave Councillor “Senator” Jeffrey an unlimited expense account to flit around the country wining and dining with her friends at FCM. Hardly anything we’d want to see carved into a plaque.

When several at the table refer to themselves as “The Group” – as the Block do of themselves – and communicate among themselves without including the rest at the table, meet in secret, even going out of town to meet, you know there will never be any cohesive, collective agenda.

These members immediately polarized the table into a stark us-vs-them split that allows no compromise, no broad picture, and certainly nothing for the greater good. It’s exclusionary politics, based on a very narrow ideology and an exaggerated sense of self-entitlement. Very Trumpian, if I might suggest.

And a vision isn’t something cobbled together by outsiders – certainly not by a group of friends, sycophants and supporters euphemistically labelled a “committee” and risibly called a ‘strategic plan’ when it contains neither strategy nor plan. Vision should have come to the table with the winners of the election. It can’t be pasted on later, like some bumper sticker. Hume writes (p. 115):

Developing solid strategic plans are usually an early focus of the new mayor and council. There are some pitfalls waiting, however, One is allowing a staff-led process, where the administration brings in its own priorities in a long list of “wants.” Another is to end up with a bland, generic, mushy plan, simply in an attempt to be all-inclusive.

Wow. Sounds like he was watching this council from the start and read our “strategic plan” (aka the committee-based wishlist) for his book. He also writes (p. 117):

Too often, it seems government is hindering progress, rather than supporting it… Decisions often don’t reflect creative, new or elegant solutions. They simply continue safe, traditional, and hidebound practices – or the hardline positions espoused in political dogma.

He nailed Collingwood Council again. Hidebound, hardline, political dogma… fits our council to a “T”.

Leadership isn’t confined to one or two people at the table. The mayor and deputy mayor are both expected to lead the process, but the community elects a council as a whole and expects – demands, even – that they provide collective leadership. Merely lurching from meeting to meeting with no goals, no vision, no strategy, is not leadership. It’s governance by accident and by incident.

And it has also become governance by crisis, as this council destroys the relationship with our utilities, our neighbours and local developers in order to meet its ideological goals.

Like the Soviet show trials of the 1930s, this council has haul its perceived enemies over the coals in order to raise their own self-esteem, although everyone in the audience – as they did in the ’30s – knows the score and the fraudulent manner in which it was done. No wonder they have so many meetings behind closed doors.

Hume comments about something that faced our previous council:

For politicians, one of the thorniest challenges can be voting for something that will not bring them immediate credit or votes in the next election, but will leave their community better in the long run. (p.10)

Last council voted not to fund the proposed $35 million ‘Taj Mahal’ rec centre and instead to pursue better, more economical options to satisfy community needs. It was done for the greater good, not for votes, not for self-aggrandizement. That’s leadership: doing what you think is best for the community instead of for yourself. Trying to secretly sell our assets, destroy our utilities, ruin staff morale, and drive good employees away isn’t.

That pretty much sums up the difference between the last and the current council. Well, that and the obsessive subservience of this council to the whims and wishes of administrative staff, and to the wild and often hurtful advice of out-of-town consultants and lawyers. And the relative willingness of the former council to learn, to expand our horizons, to accept peer advice, to seek public input and to do our business in public, not in secret.

Can you imagine a worse situation than one where the majority of council is very much despised by whole town departments and staff? That speaks volumes about the difference between this and the former council. No wonder most of this council avoids visiting town facilities. They aren’t welcome.

Hume speaks of a survey (Chap. 3) of the public attitudes towards municipal leadership in Canada. The top seven characteristics Canadians identified as desirable in their municipal politicians are:

  • Ethics
  • Vision
  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Open-mindedness
  • Communication
  • Consensus-building

Be honest: ask yourself how many of these traits are present in our current council? Both as a whole and individually, that is. Me, too. I’m hard pressed to name more than two or three whose behaviour shows any of these characteristics, let alone all of them.

Come on: a council that fires its own integrity commissioner to avoid continued investigations can hardly be called ethical. A council that does its most critical business in secret is not honest. A council that demoralizes staff and ruins reputations to suit its own ideologies is not open-minded. And the rest… just read the local papers to see how far below the mark they fall.

Hume quotes (p. 166) Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi as saying, “I get up every morning and I get to know that today I have the chance to make life better for somebody. That’s my job. That’s what I get to do for work. That’s pretty exciting.”

I imagine some of our own council wake up thinking, “Today I have the chance to ruin a relationship, demoralize staff, promote my own agenda and get paid for the privilege. And maybe get more money for my expense account.”

Cicero, in The Republic, warns in Book 1, 9-12, of the dangers of allowing people into government who profess – and even boast of – a deliberate ignorance in its mechanics:

Those gentlemen openly admit, and indeed take great pride in the fact that they have never learned and do not teach anything about how to set up a government… what sense does it make to promise assistance to a government only if driven to do so by a crisis, when they cannot manage a much easier task, namely to take charge of the government when there is no compelling crisis? (trans. Niall Rudd, Oxford University Press, 1998)

Sound familiar? In Chap. 7, Hume warns:

…power and perks can wrap politicians in a very comfortable cocoon once they are elected… Self-confidence can easily slip into arrogance, and it is a short slide from comfortable assuredness to the presumptuousness of self-importance.

It reads like he knows our council intimately. Maybe he was watching them on Rogers… on those rare times, of course, when council actually does its business on camera (standing committee meetings were moved to the library building to avoid being filmed because the majority of council doesn’t want a record of their activities).

Hume says in Chap. 9 that the three biggest issues facing municipal governments today are: debt, demographics and democracy.

Well, you can see this council won’t grapple with any of those, let alone solve them. Council quickly in its term abdicated any meaningful role in managing debt. It handed over the budget process wholesale to administrative staff and didn’t even look at the complete numbers. They have nothing planned to address demographic shifts or impacts – which include job creation, housing, health services, transportation and urban planning issues for both the seniors and the younger people who also live here. They flout the democratic process with secret meetings and secret communications, and treat openness like an inconvenience they work hard to circumvent.

Here’s what Hume says a place like Collingwood needs to be (p. 61):

Towns and small and mid-sized cities will have to offer smart amenities to attract and retain bright minds and young families. They will have to be fully wired to the global grid; housing will need to be affordable; there must be great use of public places and spaces; communities must be green and friendly and well-governed; there must be connectivity – social, physical, community; most of all they must offer that great quality of life that families desire.

Again, ask yourself to name one positive, concrete thing this council has done in any of those areas. Not what staff have done – what council has accomplished. Right: nothing.

We’re in trouble. Hume warns, “We reward short-term thinking and planning in politics, and too often discourage long-term solutions to larger, complex problems.” Perhaps, but I think any sort of thinking would be better than none at all.

The bottom line is that we deserve real, inclusive, visionary leadership from our council. All of them. What we don’t deserve is an idoelogical block focused on self-entitlement while it goes through the motions and pays others to do their thinking and planning for them.

Maybe next term… 2018 approaches!
~~~~~
* Hume says of leadership (p.13:) “A leader shapes, influences, enhances, encourages.” A fuller definition is found in the paper Project Governance: A Municipal Leadership Challenge:

Leadership can be regarded as the capacity of an individual to rally other people to a common purpose, to achieve a result through people, and a character which inspires confidence (Schuitema, 1998, p. 21; Maxwell, 1999, p. 1). Lee (2005, p. 1) concurs, but adds that leaders shape and realise success, drawing on their ability to influence, inspire, collaborate, and coach. Cooper (2005, p. 17) puts it that leadership is about being charismatic, transformational, vision, change, commitment, extra effort, and pro-action.

Ask yourself how many of these keywords fit the Bobbleheads: rally, common purpose, result, inspire, confidence, collaborate, charisma, vision, commitment… The Toronto Board of Trade published a Foundation for Good Municipal Governance document that notes:

Six principles build the foundation for good municipal government: leadership, citywide focus, civic engagement, transparency, accountability, and sound management. These six principles are interconnected and reinforce one another. A weakness in one will undermine the success of all. As well, the way in which they are defined captures the delicate balance the municipality must find between representation and responsibility.

How many of these six principles do you feel are embraced by Collingwood Council (not just paid lip service)? I can’t count one, but maybe I am biased, having sat on councils that embraced most or even all of them. My pessimism may be contoured by my experience.

** Municipal World also publishes George Cuff’s Guides for Municipal Leaders, and his Executive Policy Governance, another good series of books the majority of our council will studiously avoid reading. Reading, like learning, is tough. When you don’t even read the agenda, how can you be expected to read a whole book?

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