Leadership: in the eye of the beholder



by Andrew Caddell

The Hill Times
November 22, 2017

In my time as a reporter, UN worker, and public servant, I have met many people in public life. The three most memorable were Peter Lougheed, Pierre Trudeau, and René Lévesque.

When I arrived in Calgary in the summer of 1978, I was assigned to cover a speech by then-premier Peter Lougheed at a political dinner. As the premier stopped to chat at my table, I introduced myself and mentioned my previous assignment had been covering René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois government in Quebec City. He said, “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” For the next 20 minutes, he probed me on my impressions of the Lévesque cabinet and the premier himself.

Lougheed was a brilliant retail politician and tactician, as his record as premier from 1971 to 1985 proves. But he was also a visionary: had his direction been followed, Alberta’s Heritage Savings Trust Fund would be over a trillion dollars, like its Norwegian equivalent, instead of its current $17-billion.

I first met Pierre Elliott Trudeau when I was 22, at a Liberal convention I was covering. When I asked him a couple of questions, he just ignored me. 

While he had an extraordinary electoral record, he was not garrulous in any way. But he was a genuine intellectual and understood government intimately. When I later went to work for his government, my minister told me, “His mind is so first-class, he is crystal clear in the way he decides.” But he did not suffer fools gladly, and thus was often inept at political glad-handing.

When I worked at the National Assembly in Quebec, I got to watch René Lévesque each day. Having been a reporter, he knew the media well, which helped him cultivate his profile. Surrounded by intellectuals in his first cabinet, he read voraciously to compensate for his lack of a complete university education. However, for all his aspirations to be seen as an intellectual, it was his seeming humanity that endeared him to the common man and woman. Nonetheless, after a few drinks and many cigarettes, he was not a pleasant person to be around.

Each of these men was an exceptionally successful politician and shaped Canada in the second half of the last century. Each had different styles of leadership: Lougheed was a consulter, Trudeau a decider, Lévesque rallied people. Each was brilliant; but of the three, I think only Lougheed enjoyed politics and governing equally, as he had a genuine interest in people. Both Trudeau and Lévesque preferred governing to campaigning.

Leadership is thus a conundrum: do you choose the best campaigner or the best administrator? The smartest person or the best speaker? The kindest or the most ruthless? In the mid-1970s, the Progressive Conservative Party sought the assistance of a computer to choose the ideal leader. The backgrounds of its MPs were entered into a computer, along with certain solid conservative criteria: war experience, electoral success, bilingualism, and intellectual credibility. And he or she should be from Western Canada. 

The computer selected Marcel Lambert: a bilingual Rhodes scholar and decorated war veteran, who met all the criteria, but was a short, bald, chubby MP from Edmonton. So much for the perfect choice.

We now have three federal leaders who were selected by their parties for ostensibly the same reason: voter appeal and media profile. Compared to the awkward Michael Ignatieff, the dour Tom Mulcair, and the distant Stephen Harper, the engaging Justin Trudeau, enthusiastic Jagmeet Singh, and the effervescent Andrew Scheer are a breath of fresh air.

Are they smart? Are they good administrators? Can they lead the country in a crisis? It is hard to tell, although Canadians have had two years to assess the current prime minister, and most like what they see. In today’s Canadian political environment, successful leaders must appear articulate and intelligent in both official languages, enjoy meeting thousands of people each week, and be able to empathize with everyone from royalty to the bus driver.

However, once one of them takes (or retains) the reins of government, he will have to lead the caucus and cabinet and give overall direction to the public service. He will have to speak forcefully on issues of national and international importance. He will have to ask tough questions of subordinates, dig deep into his intellectual resources, and show incredible stamina. 

None of this is easy. As the 2019 election approaches, the public and the media will more than likely choose among the leaders on the basis of who is the most amiable and is strongest in the electronic media. But the burden of governing that awaits them is far greater than a simple popularity contest.

Andrew Caddell retired July 11 from Global Affairs Canada, where he was a senior policy adviser. He previously worked as a broadcast reporter in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Calgary, and St. John’s and as an adviser to Liberal governments in Ottawa, St. John’s, and elsewhere.

Image credit: Duncan Cameron, Dutch national archive/Rob Mieremet, Library & Archives Canada

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