What is the measure of true leadership?

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If New Brunswick’s economic morass demonstrates anything it is that, as the province careens from one predictable trauma to another, true leadership is becoming as rare as snow in Sudan.

Worse, perhaps, than genuine ignorance, virtually everyone saw this wall of debt from a distance – the current government, previous ones, pundits, political scientists, my Great Aunt Minnie – and those who had the authority and tools to knock it down, instead, laid more brick and mortar.

Some years ago, during the depth of the financial crisis that, overnight, wiped out trillions of dollars in private equity, the sad spectacle of Alan Greenspan – the once mighty head of the U.S. Federal Reserve – admitting to a Congressional Committee that his once unshakeable faith in the planet’s economic order had been thoroughly undermined in just a few, short weeks was shocking, indeed.

Now, we almost expect our leaders and heros to reliably fail us. Across North America and Europe, unemployment remain stubbornly high, the income gap between the rich and the rest continues to widen, consumer debt is at an all-time high. The tent-angry 99 per cent have folded up their makeshift cities and gone home.

In fact, as bobble-headed experts inform us from their studio couches on TV the economic diseases which afflict us are so complex, so systemic, so globally entrenched that it’s unlikely any policy, of any so-called leader, can accurately prescribe a cure. So, the thinking goes, why bother even trying?

All of which cuts to the core of our current problem: A growing distrust not only of our existing cohort of movers and shakers, but of the leadership principle, itself. 

Unlike every other malignancy that’s spread through our ailing economy, this fretful cynicism forecasts the early death of our various bodies politic, if only because we now need a calibre of leadership we haven’t seen in decades: Talented men and women in all professions and vocations stepping forward and risking their reputations in the sea of scorn that’s sweeping the planet; tough-minded, innovative, perspicacious individuals charting newer, smarter, more sustainable courses for businesses, governments, schools, and universities in the years ahead.

And yet, the question is not so much who emerges to fill these roles, but how society regains its confidence in new leaders – the confidence to recognize those who are the real deals, and those who are the carnival barkers. Given how wrong almost everyone has been about almost everything over the past decade, it’s a brutally tough assignment; but it’s not impossible.

What, in fact, makes a true leader? Is it vision, passion, discipline, persistence? Is it strength, courage, loyalty, rhetorical flourish? These are all important traits. But while these qualities may be necessary for enlightened, trustworthy leadership, they are not necessarily sufficient.

Consider, for example, a man who “persistently” pursues short-term profits at the expense of long-term revenues. Or a women who “courageously” champions a policy, program or technology despite the fact that her competitors are manifestly more successful performing the same functions. Are these the leaders we need, or do they represent too much of what we already have in the boardrooms of the world’s Burger Kings and Tim Hortons?

In fact, the true measure of leadership on the precariously uneven playing field of the modern era will be knowledge, understanding, responsibility, and cooperation.

Knowledge of the way this province’s finances really work. Understanding of the means to achieve a productive balance between free enterprise principles and regulatory protections. Responsibility for getting to the truth of the threats – sooner rather than later that would injure our collective hopes, expectations and livelihoods.

And cooperation – always cooperation – not partisan hatcheting.

The notion that any man or woman owns the right to break the world as long as he or she is strong enough or smart enough to get away with it should have died along with the careers of Alan Greenspan and all his other Ayn Rand-loving ilk. 

Now, in this New Brunswick election cycle, we must look to ourselves for the leadership we seek, and become the heroes of our own lives.

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