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The Stuff of Leadership

Beryl P. Wajsman



Wanted: Someone to rally behind

Friday, December 30, 2005

Beryl P. Wajsman, president

Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal



(BPW note: The National Post included my piece on leadership in a section called

“The stuff of leadership”. Due to space constraints it had to be edited.

I wanted to share the whole article with you here.)


The Post is to be commended for printing Graeme Hamilton’s article on leadership on the front page. This is the kind of journalism, when properly positioned, that helps raise the quality of public discourse in this country by challenging citizens to deeper reflection and greater engagement.


Hamilton quoted two eminent academics with markedly differing views on this subject. Prof. J.L. Granatstein’s comments were refreshing in their non-Canadian candour and we should all pay attention to them. However, I feel that Prof. Henry Mintzberg’s opinion begs a response. He was wrong in saying that “Leadership is not something you grab. Leadership is something that’s thrust on you because of circumstances.”


Leadership, and power, is always something you grab. It is not given like candy to well-behaved children. In our history great leaders have gone after power because of great vision. And great anger. It was not always clean or politically correct. And they were almost universally vilified in their own time. But our greatest leaders always had one set of principles in common. They saw suffering and tried to heal it. They saw injustice and tried to stop it. They saw inequity and tried to right it.


As Canadians we have sadly stopped celebrating our own history. And particularly in the past twenty years, we have allowed ourselves to be compromised by cheap pork-barrel vote-grabbing schemes as substitutes for public policy and bread-and-circus deflections from the real viruses in our body politic.


Canada’s greatest leaders were never imprisoned by the narrow prejudices of focus groups or by appeal to what the 18th century Italian legal philosopher Becarria called the “tyranny of the mediocre”. They led the people; they did not follow the mob.


From Papineau’s emancipation of all minorities in 1837 some twenty years before England; to Lafontaine and Baldwin’s experiment in responsible government that was the first in the British Empire; to Macdonald’s creation of a united Northern Dominion over squabbling regions; to Laurier’s battle against parochial particularities in spite of being excommunicated by the Catholic Church in the 1890’s and denounced by the Protestant leadership some ten years later; to the leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike; to Jean Marchand’s labor struggles that broke the back of a retrograde government in Quebec; to Tommy Douglas’ battle for Medicare; to Jean Lesage’s nationalization of hydro power that stemmed the avarice of corporations that paid no heed to poor people literally freezing to death in their beds because they could not afford heat; to René Lévesque’s fidelity to pluralism and democracy even in the midst of the passions aroused over Quebec’s bid for independence; to Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Charter of Rights that transformed Canada from a Parliamentary to a Constitutional democracy and guaranteed the sovereignty of the individual over any demands by state or collectivity.


Canada has much to celebrate. We have our own powerful mythology which we forget at our peril. It should always be remembered that leadership does not lie along the top of a fence. It climbs heights and speaks truths. Clearly proposed and candidly proclaimed.



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