Leadership Quality No. 1: Vision in Toronto and Canada

Leadership begins with vision, a theme if you will. When you're writing a novel, you ask yourself what is this about? Similarly, a political leader must ask herself, why am I running, why do I want to lead? Vision both focuses the leader on what is the most important thing and tells the public what they're about and why they should vote for them.

Unfortunately, leadership seems to be in short supply in Canada.

When I started thinking about leadership and writing about it, I was thinking federally, thinking of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Opposition leaders Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton, and Gilles Duceppe. But here in Toronto, we're in the midst of a municipal election, the kind with the lowest turnout of voters, yet the kind that has the most impact on our daily lives -- from turning on the tap in the morning to brush our teeth to walking or driving along the roads to work to taking public transit (or not if not available or unpleasant) to turning on the computer and relying on the fact it shall be powered to having a place to chill during lunch, preferably a green space, to having a place to chuck our trash at night. Much of that is mundane -- who cares about water until it bursts out of the street in front of your house -- so it's hard to have vision. But after the neglect of decades, Toronto is ripe for a leader with vision. And the Toronto Star has kindly offered up to me today the potential leaders' visions in their own words. (I will get to the feds below, scroll down if you like.)

The frontrunner is Rob Ford. He declined The Star's request for a vision statement. Guess it was a nefarious plot to expose him, but they plucked one out from one of his media interviews. (All quotations from The Toronto Star, Greater Toronto section, 16 September 2010)
"I am absolutely committed to ensuring that City Hall starts working for our citizens."
Sounds noble, but what does that mean in the details. A vision needs to be more than a vague feel-good statement. Yes, it begins with that, but as they say the devil is in the details. And once you hear Ford, you realize there ain't much detail there except to cut waste, a mantra I've heard time and time again from Mel Lastman on, and one which is not a vision but an excuse to continue to do nothing exciting for Toronto, an excuse to avoid the tough decisions needed to make this place a productive, great city. Because, in the end, the biggest impediment to Toronto's financial health is the province (why is the city still paying for welfare when the 905 cities are not?) and Canada, which refuses to do for its largest city what the US government does for its cities. So the question really is what can the city do for itself in spite of these higher government boulders around its neck?

George Smitherman thinks he has the answer. He's a former cabinet minister in the Liberal provincial government. He oversaw the colossal waste of dollars in the eHealth scandal and famously had to wear a diaper to learn that it's rather poopy having to wear one all day long -- for hours on end -- as senior citizens have to in many Ontario nursing homes.
"I will bring all my passion to get Toronto working again."
Well, I should hope so. A leader without passion is a dead duck, as well as a trampled one once the critics get going. But I do worry that Smitherman's idea of passion is the bully tactics he used, the aggression he showed too often at Queen's Park. We absolutely do not need any more of that in Toronto; this city is on edge, and we need a leader who can convey a sense of calm within the action. It's instructive that in the debate I saw on television, he sat stony faced, looking straight ahead when the other candidates were talking, a stark contrast to Sarah Thomson who looked at the speaking candidate, engaged in what they were saying, listening and replying when allowed. The others ranged in between the two styles. I would rather have someone engaged with their opposition than someone so uncomfortable, he doesn't even want to look at them.

Smitherman continues his vision with statements about freezing taxes, getting "quality service from your city", and moving again. Except for the quality service, he puts enough detail in that you get a sense the city will have less money than ever (really, why are all the candidates talking of freezing taxes when we're so far behind after decades of neglect and zero expectations of what we can do and pay less than any other GTA municipality), that he'll trumpet 311 as his own success story, and maybe, just maybe we'll have subway building again -- preferably downtown -- though transit usually means LRT and more buses these days.

Rocco Rossi is an unknown to me.
"A City Hall that actually listens to the people...Toronto deserves a leader who can talk like a mayor and listen like a neighbour....I welcome all ideas, all people, and the change needed to get our city back on track."
His vision seems to be one of getting Toronto to like itself, to get along with each other, and to inject a sense of enthusiasm in what we can do for ourselves and our city. Being open minded to all ideas is the mark of a great leader. Even if the populace puts down ideas, denigrates those who dream big, a leader needs to have the optimistic enthusiasm to rise above the fray and forge ahead with their ideas. My mother was commenting the other day how rude Toronto drivers and pedestrians are. I'd lump in bicyclists, TTC users too. I've always felt that the milieu of a place comes from its leader, and it's interesting that Rossi has touched on a big problem this city has: rage against itself.

Joe Pantalone shares David Miller's way of leading and wants to continue his ideas.
"I am a city builder...We will be a city of neighbourhoods and a city of the world. European-style rapid transit will reconnect our city."
I don't know about you but I want Toronto-style rapid transit. And the kind that Miller has put in place and Pantalone is riding on the coat-tails of will do nothing for the downtown or mid-town area and still leave Scarberians steaming at the intersection between the subway and the kind of transit they get. His vision statement actually sounds good and references the green trend, but I have not been impressed with what Miller has called green. It's been pretty much lip service that does not include everybody and has left many of us behind. Although Pantalone says he will leave no one behind, the fact that he's tied to Miller and uses epithets to describe the other candidates (how juvenile) during debates makes me disbelieve him. He's the only candidate with a track record in ideas (Ford has no ideas except going after waste and capitalizing on people's anger), and those ideas have had some merit but are simply not enough to restore Toronto to her former glory. I suppose if you're young, you'll think the recent past has been peachy keen. But let me tell you, it's a ghost of what we had. And I want that again.

Sarah Thomson is the only woman in the race and is hardly noticed by the media, not surprising given the inherent misogyny in the media today and the way male political leaders treat/ignore their female colleagues when it comes to cabinet posts and tossing out of caucus. Of the five front-runners, there should be at least two women. It's a mark on our society that there is not.
"It is my vision that Toronto's wealth of ideas be used in collaboration with our civic government....where we are the job growth capital...leader of the green economy, and the best place in the world to live, visit, play and work for [all]. As badly as I want subway expansion to the airport and a downtown relief life [oh yes, please god, if there is a god, give us a leader who's for that], I really want to see the Maple Leafs win..."
Now there's a true Toronto leader! Isn't that what every Torontonian wants -- a winning hockey team? I like how she was the only one to inject humour into her vision statement. This city needs laughter in its Council Chamber. She uses words designed to give us a picture of what we want, and she mentions two big ideas that up-to-now everyone has said is pie in the sky, that we cannot have. But although she doesn't mention the Pan Am Games coming to Toronto in 2015, if we do not have these lines in place, it's going to be a nightmare that will make Delhi look organized and competent. She also touches on something the others don't: jobs. Has anyone looked at Toronto's unemployment rate? It's shocking, way too high for Canada's largest city, the so-called economic engine of the country. She's also touched on two areas that will affect that: the green economy and subways. If people are stuck in traffic, the economy slows down, productivity drops. The future of jobs lies in the green economy as well. Toronto has to attract those kind of jobs (but I also think it needs to attract jobs in the creative fields, like we did recently with a videogame maker). She makes it sound possible for Toronto to once again be the best place to live, work, play, and visit, no matter who you are. Exciting!

Now to the Feds.

Harper's leadership has been characterized by control of the message. He decides which of his cabinet will talk and when and whether the media gets to ask him questions or not. That's been such a strong aspect of his leadership that vision gets buried underneath it. After 4 years of his rule, my sense is he envisions Canada as a divided, fear-filled country, one in which Canadian is against Canadian -- and that old, tired rubric of Canadian against Toronto -- in which victimhood reigns, of the big bad East oppressing the victim West and telling them how it's going to be, all so that he can rule with an iron fist. A divided country is much easier to control than a united one. As a minority of a minority, I can say it oftentimes sucks to be ruled by the majority but if you're smart, you can use it and be part of the majority. It's what my ancestors have done for centuries. But if you're comfortable in your victimhood, well you do what Harper and his cabinet members do: whine and then become prey to their tactics.

The only positive thing -- meaning a real vision, one that can energize people -- is the spotlight he's put on the Arctic. He's brought that region into Canadian consciousness. Sure he's militarized his focus, but unlike many Canadians who think the rest of the world is like the paradise here and no one could hate us so he's just being silly, I think he's smart. There are several countries out there who want our northern land, our sea. And now that the ice is fading, they're gearing up again because they think we're easy pickings, like the Americans thought in 1812.

His focus on the Arctic has meant media like Global National and The Toronto Star have put reporters up north and brought stories down to us in the south to get to know ourselves better. If you've never been to the north, you gotta go. It tells you something about who we are and who you are as a Canadian that you'll never get from south of the territories. If it wasn't for Harper's need to sow fear and division, I think this vision is strong enough to vote for him.

Ignatieff is an intellectual, an academic who hasn't lived in Canada most of his life. And it showed. He showed no political smarts after prorogation when he had Harper against the rails. He huffed and puffed and changed absolutely nothing of what Harper proposed. He has continued that method, which to me means the Liberals essentially agree with the Conservatives. Neither Ignatieff nor Harper purportedly like coalitions, but Ignatieff and Harper have been running one since the Liberal leadership changed. However, I have no sense of what Ignatieff envisions for this country.

He recently toured Canada -- it was like a visitor wanting to get to know a favourite country, but it was also like an old-fashioned political summer campaign. He seems more in tune with Canada and more energized, more political, less an academic stuffed shirt. Still, I don't know what his vision for Canada is.

Jack Layton has recently demonstrated loud and clear his idea of what democracy means. The long gun registry has been a frustrating sliver in western and rural Canada's backside for years, yet Harper hasn't done much about it in the 4 years he's been running Parliament. A private member's bill finally came forward to get rid of it. (I guess that MP was more concerned about it than Harper though Harper talks good game. If I were a westerner, I'd be unimpressed with Harper right now.)

So in time honoured fashion the Conservatives and Liberals have whipped their MPs to vote the way the leader says, never mind what the constituents have said, never mind what the individual MPs have assessed about this bill, in Canadian democracy, only one voice counts: the leader's. The MPs are there just to do their bidding. This has been a real frustration among Canadians. Every 5 years we vote in an autocracy.

But Layton changed that. He opened the door to democracy in his party, and everyone howled. Sheesh. His party has been talking about Parliamentary reform, and this month he's demonstrated on a small scale what that would be like. And it's amazing.

Without a whip, Layton had to rely on his leadership skills to persuade his MPs to vote down the bill. He recognized that some MPs represented people who don't want the long gun registry, but he also recognized that MPs both represent and lead their constituents. History is rife with politicians who vote against constituents because they believe it's better for the country overall, and thus better for their people (not just because they were whipped into it). Layton set out to speak to their reason, to their logic, to their intelligence. Yes, intelligence. And those MPs are listening.

Layton's vision is to restore democracy to Parliament. And he's demonstrated in a way that all can see that democracy works, that treating MPs like thinking human beings works, that it creates concord not division, that it's inspiring and engages people in the subject, really gets them thinking as opposed to simply using their gut reflex that only shuts down people's minds.

Gilles Duceppe doesn't want to lead Canada, only his little piece of it. But many Canadians like him because he's a true leader: incisive, intelligent, thoughtful, interesting to watch, with a strong sense of how our democracy is meant to be. His vision is to pry Quebec out of Canada...I think. Sometimes one does wonder.

The reason why Barack Obama got people so excited was because he had a vision, he articulated it well in few words, and he spoke to people's yearning for a leader excited about their country, about all the people in their country, about making their country a leader again. The reason why Canadians are so turned off is that none of our leaders has that. Harper has an exciting vision about the Arctic, but he blackens it with his politics of fear. Layton comes closest in his content and method of uniting and persuading, but he's too wordy, too earnest, and of course he leads a party that Canadians have decided can't win -- though if they voted for who they liked best, maybe it would.

Canada still waits for that one person who has a vision that gets us up and off our couches, screaming, "Yes!"