When I think about what it takes to be a leader, I reflect on what Nelson Mandela said about the regent he knew in his youth. He said that “Liberals and conservatives, traditionalists and reformers, white-collar officials and blue-collar miners, all remained loyal to him, not because they always agreed with him, but because the regent listened to and respected different opinions.” (emphasis mine)
Good leaders listen to the people they lead. When they stop listening they should no longer be called leaders.
For democracy to work, people in positions of political power need the intuition, the means and the will to listen.
At the level of formal politics, a lack of listening is an impediment to true democracy. I sense that many of those in power do not listen well. Similarly, I propose that they don’t routinely negotiate with ordinary concerned citizens and there seem to be few attempts at building consensus. Yes, there are the perpetual polls which apparently take the pulse of the people. But there is much less old-fashioned face-to-face dialogue.
Recently I have noted that some Canadian Members of Parliament have missed some great opportunities to listen. For example, there was a recent incident in the riding of Oak Ridges-Markham when the local MP hosted a “Freedom of the Town” event commemorating the War of 1812. He may have been unaware that the community was founded in large part by Quakers and Mennonites whose faith background is part of the “peace church” tradition. These groups objected to what they felt was an inaccurate portrayal of the history of the town. This would have been a great opportunity for the MP to listen to the serious concerns of a large group of people whom he has been charged to represent. The military celebration went ahead as originally planned. There did not appear to be an attempt to listen well to these citizens in order to compromise or negotiate an alternative commemorative event. My point in this case is not to argue whether or not it was right to hold the event. But my deep disappointment was that our elected MP did not show an instinctive desire meet with a very large group of local citizens to listen to their concerns.
The second example is related to the refugee health crisis and Bill C-31. Never in the 28 years since I graduated as a medical doctor have I seen so many physicians organize so broadly to protest a political decision that they believed was detrimental to the health of individuals and communities. The protests continue and they have captured the attention of thousands. It is such a rare phenomenon that 100s of doctors would organize for weeks on end in an attempt to communicate and to advocate on behalf of others. Again in this case, most members of parliament failed to listen appropriately to these concerns. In recent days there has been some attempt to compromise on the original plan of C-31. I repeat that my point right now is not the details of the bill. The point is that if the MPs involved were true leaders, they would show a greater intuition to listen to their concerned citizens. In the case of MP Joe Oliver being interrupted by Dr. Chris Keefer during a press conference, I’d love to have seen a response from the MP along these lines: “Dr. Keefer, I can see that you are clearly upset about this matter. Let’s find a time to sit down very soon so that I can listen to your concerns.”
I propose that, given the option, most physicians would say the same thing that Ovide Mercredi said (in a completely different context in 2007). “Our people are very conservative when it comes to political action. We would rather talk than demonstrate.” Physicians, too, would rather talk. They have been driven to demonstrate because people in positions of power did not take adequate opportunity to prepare an informed decision and discuss alternative proposals.
In his book “A Fair Country”, Jean Ralston Saul describes the métis heart of Canadian civilization including “our tendency to try to run society as an ongoing negotiation.” This is the Canada I long to preserve. I fear that the current disinclination of people in positions of power to listen, negotiate and build consensus contributes to the apathy and cynicism that now permeate the Canadian political landscape.
I am not a political leader. But I do hold a leadership position in academic health care. I hope that those whom I purport to lead will always find me willing to listen; inclined to negotiate and motivated to build consensus – so that we can all enjoy a better society.