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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Political Seppuku Noble Sacrifice and Exemplary Leadership

PS - Don't click on the link above if you're the squeamish type.

If you're involved in politics, though, odds are you aren't so squeamish.  It's not a business for the faint of heart.

So, what do people get into politics for?  Yes, there are those who see it as a cushy gig with lots of perks, just as there are those who see it as a stepping stone to a higher-paid career consulting somewhere down the road.  And absolutely, there are those who enter politics because they have egos bigger than their constituencies and are only really interested in power, whatever that means.

But there are those who get into politics for the right reasons - because they believe in a cause or they're angry at the direction a government is taking.  Stephen Harper and Rob Ford are two examples; we'll get to them later.

Some idealistic political ingenues enter the field convinced they have the moxie to change the system from within, that their principles are so rock-solid that they will never, ever fall victim to the cynicism of politics-as-usual.

Those that hold to this course don't last long - case in point, St├ęphane Dion.  Dion's greatest sin was that he was not a ruthless, step-on-their-throats political operative.  He thought policy-wise, not tactically. As a partisan, Dion was weak - and we all know what happens to the weak in a survival-of-the-fittest game.

Those who survive and thrive in our political culture do so by learning to play the game, which is essentially do anything you think you can get away with to win/kneecap your enemies and if you get caught, deny, deflect or bait and switch as long as you can and hopefully all will be forgotten.

This is where we come back to Harper and Ford.  

Harper is a policy wonk - he basically had to have his arm twisted to run, but when he did, it became his divine crusade to remake Canada in his own image.  In his mind, his cause is just; as a man of functionally fixed faith, his belief in his righteousness has never wavered.  His ethics, however, have flipped and flopped across the political landscape like a fish out of water.

Remember when Harper declared that "moral relativism simply cannot be sustained as a guiding philosophy?"  That was back when he thought that transparency was vital to democracy and that leaders should be held accountable but even more than that, should feel accountable for their choices and the actions of their team.

Since then, Harper has become the moral nihilist he once derided.  His talking points are consistent, his bluster remains the same, but Harper has become the embodiment of everything he once stood against.  He has broken his promise on accountability and transparency, stifled the flow of information that's vital to an engaged, dynamic democracy and worse, he has either tacitly approved or willfully ignored the creep of entitlement and corruption into his own office. 

All of this, I have no doubt, he has done in good conscience, because he feels righteous and knows in his Machiavellian heart that it's his occupancy of 24 Sussex that allows for his crusade to press on. What need for consultations with Provincial counterparts?  Don't they realize he's Prime Minister?

There are consequences to Harper's my-way-or-the-highway approach.  While the rest of the world is recognizing the need to invest in massive service integration and restructuring processes if they are to have any hope at stabilizing their economy, supporting their populations and building pathways to future success, Harper is contemplating a scorched earth policy that will devastate Canada's opportunity to adapt - all because it will kneecap his opponents.  

There are precedents out there for what happens when leaders righteously convince themselves that their grip on power is in the best interests of the people they are meant to serve, not dictate to.  For a recent example, look at Syria.  For the most egregious example, look to North Korea.

Then, there's Rob Ford.  With all the emphasis these days on Ford's Follies - crack-smoking, binge-drinking, murder-threatening, bobble-head signing and so forth. people have lost sight of the man's basic profile.  Rob Ford is the guy who poked his nose into other constituencies because, dammit, someone had to get things done.  Ford is the guy who offered to score Oxycontin for a man who said he needed it.  Ford is the guy who loved to coach football and felt that, dammit, those kids needed him - without him, they were doomed to burn in the fires of their own inadequacies.

How devastated was he to lose his position as coach of the Don Bosco Eagles?  What did that do to the self-image he has created for himself; isn't  he supposed to be this great... crusader?  He has been lambasted, ridiculed the world over and been forced, even if in small measure, to admit that the cloak he has wrapped himself in is an illusion.  He has far more to lose now than he ever has before - as do the people who have taken him as their champion, come hell or high water.

Those people - this Ford Nation - aren't disappearing, despite what some pundits are suggesting.  They aren't abandoning their man as his faults are seized upon and exploited; rather, they are increasingly demonizing their opponents, dehumanizing them in the same way they feel the leftist, urban elite cyclists and thug-huggers are vilifying their man.

Intransigent, power-addicted leaders have this habit of polarizing the people into for and against camps.  At the same time, the people who convince themselves that their leaders are the embodiment of perfection and idealize them as superheroes feed the descent from participatory democracy to fractured society.  Add Greece's Golden Dawn and Hungary's Jobbik Party to the list.

This is where the ancient Japanese custom of Seppuku comes in.  On the surface, Seppuku is simply a painful form of suicide; one who commits Seppuku jabs a sword into their own bowels and slices open their own belly, leading to a slow, agonizing death.  Beyond this, though, Seppuku was reflective of Bushido, the Samurai code of ethics.   

Seppuku and Bushido are not an easy concept for us Westerners to understand, as it involves three concepts that we seem to have done away with - shame, honour and sacrifice.  The Hagakure, the defining text for Bushido, gives us insight around the concept:

Living without blame doesn't mean acting inappropriately and then denying/deflecting blame - it means not doing things that are inappropriate in the first place.

Rob Ford's heart is not set right - if it were, he'd probably have less substance abuse problems, but he would also not be Mayor.  

I'm sure Stephen Harper thinks his heart is set right; he might even pray every morning and evening. 

The fact that so many of his hand-picked people have failed in their civic duties and he still feels entitled to be Prime Minister is all the evidence we need to see that Harper has lost his way.  

Does it come as any surprise that the teams around both men are willing to bypass the rules, act unethically and when their shame comes to light, defiantly defend their actions or seek to minimize the damage to themselves?  After all, that's exactly what Ford and Harper are doing.  

Today's political staff have, by and large, hitched their wagons to the horse they think most likely to win - it's the spin-off benefits of being wingmen to the winningest leader that motivates them, just as winning is what motivates their leader.  The rational pursuit of self-interest has led to political protectionism and the decline of Canadian democracy.

Just imagine if we had, any at level, leaders that understood and practiced a modern-day variant of Bushido.  By acting as if they, as individuals, were already dead, their primary objective would be obsolescence - creating teams and plans that would persevere long after they were gone.  

By making it clear to their teams that the buck really did stop at the top, these leaders would make it clear they are prepared to sacrifice themselves should any individual under their command behave improperly.  Of course, such a leader would be able to demand right action from their people because that would be the example they set, every day.

This does not mean that every mistake is punishable by death; people are not perfect and failure is a natural part of the learning cycle.  It does mean a commitment on the part of all participants to ensure learning and correction, rather than denial or protectionism, happen.  It's when failure is swept under the carpet in the name of self-preservation that organizations from the top to the bottom, go astray.

Fortunately, we're a bit more sophisticated than feudal Japan.  Words are our weapons of choice; the majority of our wars are fought through the media; assassinations have been replaced with character assassination.  In the modern context, honourable death on the field of battle or through Seppuku has been replaced with career suicide.  

Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden consciously sacrifice their reputations and careers in respect of principles they hold to be more precious than themselves.  Politicians who sacrifice their own political careers and ambitions for the good of what they believe in do the same; two examples that come to mind are David Caplan and Chris Bentley.

The Rob Ford staffers that have resigned to get themselves as far away from a slowly unfolding train wreck are not acting out of a code of ethics - they're acting from a sense of self-preservation, following the example of their boss.  By speaking truth to power, regardless of the personal consequences, Mark Towhey was the one who put the cause before everything else, including the boss, including himself.

But, you may tell me, to practice Political Bushido is to commit political hari kiri; if every honourable person were to sacrifice themselves for their principles, why, there would only be unhonourable people left - surely, we don't want that?  Absolutely true - but tell me, how's our political culture working out right now?

At the leadership level, sacrifice isn't about personally defeating an opponent, it's about changing the expectations of the people.  Look at any movement in history - it takes martyrs to catalyze the public's willingness to act.

Politics isn't a business for the squeamish, nor is it a venue for self-denying optimism.  What politics is supposed to be, however, is a noble profession.  It can be again - it has to be, again.  What we are missing now are leaders so committed to what they believe in that they are prepared to fall on their own swords in defense of their principals.

When that day comes, we will finally have leadership again.

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