I’ve not understood opinion polls and comments claiming that the current Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, is more popular than Stéphane Dion because Harper is a strong leader. Jack Layton’s campaign stresses that he is a strong leader. For me, a person that can facilitate a meeting, bring different views together to come to a common understanding, who puts collective wisdom and experience ahead of individual ego and ambition, who listens and considers other views seriously—in short, someone who doesn’t act as a strong leader but rather is an encourager of the skills and ideals of others, who sees grassroots and community based initiatives as at least as valid as what comes from those at the top, is far more preferable than a strong leader.

Over the years I have grown fearful of strong leaders. They may be able  to get focused action for a time but in my experience organisations that are built around a strong leader aren’t sustainable in the long term, ultimately aren’t as a creative and certainly are less accountable.

I find expressions of a desire for strong leadership crossing the mainstream political spectrum. From those that claim that deregulation is great and the government needs to get off the backs of people to those that see government as a resource for positive social change, it doesn’t seem that ideology determines ones view on strong individually focused leadership.   Indeed, while I can understand those that want to solve a social problem considering strong, central authority something positive I am constantly surprised by those that oppose the state apparatus doing something positive for people, distrusting big brother and wanting government off their backs, calling for law and order to get the state on the back of those they are ideologically opposed to.

Just like I don’t understand academic plagiarism (why do people have so little confidence in their own ideas and arguments?), I don’t understand the desire for strong leaders. What occurs in our society, in our personal social development, that leads people to want to be told what to do and how to do it and to distrust their own abilities and insights? In times of uncertainty especially, when the ability to bring people together to use their individual ideas and skills to meet common goals should be of more importance than coercing people to achieve a single vision, the call for a strong leader seems to be raised even louder. This desire for a centralising of power and authority is frightening.

Perhaps the desire for a strong leader is a search for an ultimate sacrificial lamb. If something goes wrong it is the fault of the leader, not of us. Having someone to blame may be easier than sharing in the responsibility to solve a problem. It doesn’t result in a better solution, but we can individually feel left off the hook if we give the power over to a strong central authority. And, when the strong leader proves to be as human and frail as we are, a strong leader can be attacked for imperfections we forgive in ourselves. We get to be a hypocritical judge as well as avoiding a shared responsibility to work together towards solving common problems.

Perhaps I do understand what strong leaders are popular after all. I still don’t like the concept, though. Too much harm can be caused by such a centralising of power.


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