50 people were burned to death in a church in Eldoret, Kenya, while the Kenyan president and the opposition leader refused to order their followers to settle election differences peacefully. Promised elections in Pakistan still have not happened, after months of protest, the imposition of martial law, and the assassination of one of the candidates, Benazir Bhutto. Closer to home, the media have fixated on the Schreiber-Mulroney affair, with its allegations of purchasing influence in Ottawa. These are the predominant images of leadership the past few months: individuals, thirsting for power, unable or unwilling to consider the common good.
Small wonder then that some of us are cynical about politics and those in positions of political power. These are examples of leadership that is primarily concerned with self-interest and self-preservation.
In the Bible, we can see a similar picture of leadership, particularly among Old Testament kings. In fact, when Israel first demands a king, God tells Samuel to “solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who will reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:9). Samuel advises the Israelites of the price they will pay for the king’s self-interest: the loss of their children, their property and their freedom, as well as constant militarism. While Israel has good kings and bad kings, by the beginning of the New Testament, Israel’s experience of kings has gone so badly that the birth of Jesus is accompanied by King Herod’s order to murder all boys under the age of two in an attempt to protect his own power.
But this is not the Bible’s only representation of leadership, or even its predominant vision. Defying authority, the midwives of Exodus saved children from genocide. Queen Esther risked her own life to save the lives of her people. The Psalmist prayed for God to endow the king with righteousness, that he might “deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help” (Psalm 72:12). The prophets called Israel to lives of justice and righteousness. And in the New Testament, Jesus called his followers to leave their old lives, being fully transformed by his message to become workers for the Kingdom of God.
These examples offer us a profound insight into what leadership is really all about, and how, if practiced differently, leadership could radically impact our country and our world. In these images of leadership, care for the voiceless and justice for the marginalized are central. A vision of how the world could be different – a vision reaching beyond immediate self-interest – guided these leaders in their actions, inspiring others to join them and work together to achieve this vision. These images of leadership also include responsibility for actions, decisions and their consequences. This is leadership that embraces the pursuit of public justice.
How might this vision of leadership look if it were applied to some of Canada’s current significant policy issues? Our past few web features have looked at a number of prominent issues: the environment, poverty, diversity and the economy. How would leadership that seeks the common good and public justice address these issues differently?
Consecutive Canadian governments have been reluctant to embrace genuine changes that would improve our care for the environment. Leadership requires a clearer commitment to environmental stewardship and visionary action that inspires others to move forward. Leadership also involves taking responsibility for our actions and decisions that have contributed to environmental degradation. Climate change is integrally linked to our entire way of life and built into our economic choices and core values about economic growth. We need to be challenged to rethink our choices by integrating economic, environmental and social policy.
Canada’s poverty rates have not changed significantly in the past 25 years, despite repeated commitments to reduce poverty. Leadership requires a more comprehensive vision of how things could be different, especially for those suffering deeply from injustice. The federal government could show stronger leadership by adopting a poverty reduction strategy, committing the government to goals, targets, and measures of accountability, to generate real progress in solving poverty.
Canada’s diversity is increasing, and this brings up challenges around social integration, pluralism and identity. Recent public debates represent deeper questions of how Canadians will live together, in particular as we welcome over 300,000 newcomers annually. We must respectfully engage in dialogue about common public life, and through this developing the common good in policies and programs. This is a responsibility of all citizens, but our elected officials and decision makers should lead by example, creating an unmistakable climate of openness and a desire to engage with others respectfully.
Fears of an economic recession have led to discussions of economic management and, in particular, tax cuts. What is missing from these debates, however, is how taxes contribute to the common good. Taxes generate revenues that pay for government programs and services. Thus, tax debates are really debates about what kind of country we want to live in. Leadership requires a broader vision of taxes that extends beyond self-interest to consider what programs and services contribute to the common good – programs and services that may become more important during an economic slowdown.
Leadership must offer a comprehensive vision of how we can work together to create a better Canada. Citizens must challenge and work with our leaders to create a vision for our future that encompasses public justice for all Canadians and for our environment. This is an image of leadership that could inspire a politics of hopeful citizenship, instead of a politics of cynicism.