'Where have all the Leaders Gone?" is the title of a recent lecture that Mary Lou Finlay, the respected former host of CBC Radio's As it Happens, delivered to the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University. It is a question that many Canadians have been asking.
We do know where several aspiring leaders are going -- to Montreal, hoping to become the next leader of the Liberal Party. Whoever wins that contest may not have much time for reading, but there are three classics that define leadership's potential to do good, and also the likelihood that temptations will turn leaders into monsters.
Eager and ambitious leaders should start by reading one of the first histories ever written, and still the best, The History of the Peloponnesian War (available in many editions), by Thucydides of Athens (421-399 BC). Thucydides, a general in the Peloponnesian War, raised the events he knew intimately to a universal plane. His analyses of human nature and the action-reaction dynamic of international relations have never been bettered.
The war between Athens and Sparta, he saw, was not due to any specific incident: "The real though unavowed cause I believe to have been the growth of the Athenian power, which terrified the Spartans and forced them into war." Today the United States, like Sparta the undisputed military superpower, looks very warily at the rising power of China. It was ever thus, Thucydides would say.
But as well as being a primer on international relations, The History of the Peloponnesian War is the story of decision-makers under stress. In his contrasting portraits of Pericles and the demagogue Cleon, Thucydides dissects the human condition and exposes the forces that move political men.
To Thucydides, Pericles was a successful visionary (elected 16 times; Liberals, take note): "The reason for this," Thucydides writes, "was that Pericles, because of his position, his intelligence, and his known integrity, could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check. It was he who led them, rather than they who led him." The first rule of leadership is to stand for something and to make your purposes clear. Pericles's mission was to make democratic Athens the "school of Hellas."
Cleon, however, was in the game for ego-gratification. A demagogue, he rose to prominence after Pericles's death and persuaded Athens to reject a favourable peace. He did so, Thucydides writes, because "he thought that once there was peace his corruption would be more obvious and his false accusations less credible." Cleon was a brute who persuaded the Athenian Assembly to slaughter all the men of Mytilene (an order rescinded the next day). Cleon admonished the Assembly in that debate: "What you do not realize, is that your empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it."
Character, commitment and communication are the leadership qualities emphasized in these three classics. Despite the vicissitudes of politics, whether in ancient Athens or modern Louisiana, self-government is still a noble idea, and we need leaders committed to it. Pericles had it right when he said in his great funeral oration: "When a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit."
I find this interesting because finally there is some recognition that the Liberal party of the past couple of decades has been more Cleon-like than Pericles-like (I'm sure Axworthy would like to think of Pierre Trudeau as our Pericles -- Axworthy was principal secretary to the former p.m. at one point and has written many books about him, but that's another editorial). Unfortunately, as you can figure out from the implications of the third paragraph, the lack of any real appreciation for Classics in Canada since (I'd argue) at least the late 1960s, means that the likelihood of anyone but an academic making such a connection unlikely. And so it's probably not surprising that since the time of the Jesuit-educated Pierre Trudeau that Canadian politics has been a tale of ever-increasing concentration of power in the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) with very little in the way of checks and balances which one would get from a more republican form of government (let's hope that the recent motion to recognize the Quebecois as a 'nation within a nation' is just a first step on the part of the Conservatives to recognizing other regional 'nations' and the 'nationality' of the aboriginal people, with a view to creating an ELECTED senate to protect the interests thereof from the tyrannies of Parliament (when there's a majority government) and/or the PMO.
... okay, I'll get off my soapbox now. We'll see if translations of Thucydides start flying off the shelves at Chapters ...