The high cost of leadership confusion

By evoke
February 22, 2011

There is a strong argument to be made that Canada has been mired in a minority government for five years because none of the party leaders understands the single most important principal of successful leadership: Have a simple, concise and compelling articulation of what you stand for. In the absence of a singular vision, each of the party leaders perpetuates confusion about who they are, rendering themselves unable to inspire voters to give them a majority.

A clear and compelling understanding of who you are gives voters a context through which they make sense of a leader’s words and actions. The context makes what the leader says and does more powerful because we can easily see how everything ties together and how everything is aligned with what they stand for. The problem with each of the three party leaders is that we don’t know what they stand for, so everything they do and say just seems like an endless string of details with no common thread.

To his credit, Harper has tried the hardest to define himself, but too many of his actions have been perceived as irrational (e.g., the census), which is inconsistent with the “steady, responsible leadership” persona he is trying to project. And “steady, responsible leadership” is hardly a compelling vision, although it has worked reasonably well in the face of weak competition. Ignatieff has done nothing to create a singular, compelling vision, and has been criticized mercilessly in the press and in the polls for two years as a result. Layton has a unique dilemma: if he runs as the party of progressive ideas, Canadians won’t give him a majority; if he drifts into the middle of road – which is where he has been residing with Ignatieff for most of his federal career – he becomes generic and undifferentiated, providing no reason to vote for him.

If the federal election takes place on May 2, as many are suggesting, there are many predictions that all three leaders will be sitting in the same seats with essentially the same support. In other words, nothing material will change and the election will have accomplished little. However, even with this “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” outcome, there could be dire consequences for all three leaders:

  • Conservatives may conclude that Harper can never win a majority and throw him out
  • Liberals may conclude Ignatieff can’t win anything (remember, he didn’t even win the Liberal leadership…it was handed to him on a silver platter)
  • Layton may decide he has had enough and it is time for him to move into an elder statesman position as Bob Rae did for a period in his career

A great leader has a great vision that inspires people to follow and be loyal for the long-term. The reverberations from Martin Luther King’s leadership are still being felt today, almost 45 years after his death. A great vision, such as King’s, comes from knowing exactly who you are and what you believe. Confusion about who you are as a leader and what you believe in makes winning, in any form (elections, market share, donations), an uphill battle. And in the case of the three federal leaders, it may even lead to the simultaneous end of their careers in that role.

Here is a great test to see if you, as a leader, are causing confusion: ask the key people around you to write down what they think your organization stands for. Is each answer different? If so, you may want to relook at both what you stand for and how you are communicating it through your organization.

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