“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” This is a quote from Rosalynn Carter, presumably talking about her husband, Jimmy Carter who was US President from 1977 to 1981. Assuming that councils across this great land, and Councillors as individuals, have leadership roles in each of their communities, this quote raises some interesting points.
Firstly, this quote assumes a certain amount of arrogance. The inference is that a leader will listen to the want of the people then take the people along that path, but Rosalynn intimates that her Jimmy knew better than the want of the people and should take the nation along to a slightly different path – one where he knew the outcome would be better despite the fact that the nation may want a different outcome. At the extreme level, you can see a ‘great leader’, as defined by Rosalynn, saying that they don’t care what ‘the people’ want, ‘I know better than all of them!’ At first glance it sounds incredibly arrogant to me, but maybe not quite as arrogant as it seems. The alternative may not be that good and it is a problem I see in some levels of Australian politics. The alternative is to always deliver what ‘the people’ say they want. That sounds like populist politics. Run some opinion polls or referendums on each issue and then make a decision based on what ‘the people’ say. Despite the fact that this would be a clumsy and unwieldy way to run any government, it assumes that all the people voting have taken the time to go through all the facts on each decision, consider a variety of points of view, consider the long-term impacts on a variety of stakeholders and then vote accordingly. Not only would this be incredibly unrealistic but, to a certain extent, unfair on all the people who have elected their leaders expecting them to spend the time researching and fact-finding before making a decision.
When I visit my accountant, I don’t ask him to give me all of the relevant legislation and tax law related to my tax return. I ask for his advice based on the assumption that he has studied the law and how it applies to my particular circumstances. The same applies with a number of people that we interact with in our normal lives – doctors, builders, plumbers, solicitors, etc. We place our trust in various people with the knowledge and information to give us advice or make decisions that will be best for us. When my accountant says I need to pay tax of $X, I don’t necessarily want to do it, but I ought to do it, and so I do.
In a political sense, an election of leaders is a process where ‘the people’ are asking for political leaders to be entrusted with making decisions on their behalf. In the same way that I trust my accountant to give me the correct advice after having performed the necessary research, ‘the people’ are expecting political leaders to make the right decisions after having considered various aspects and the long-term impacts of that decision. This doesn’t mean that every decision is popular or that every decision will have people cheering their leaders as they walk down the street, but hopefully the right decisions will be seen to have been the right decisions in the fullness of time.
On the other side, at what point does a leader change their opinion based on public opinion? I often see our political leaders – at every level – sway in their opinions like a reed sways in the breeze. If a journalist makes a comment they modify their stance; if an opinion poll comes out, their position changes; if a few random anonymous comments are made online, the focus changes. At face value it might seem good that a leader is listening to the wants of the people but it is not a healthy way to run government.
I would hope that leaders across the nation thoroughly research their concepts and ideas before bringing them through their relevant chamber. I would hope they are transparent and open on why decisions are made. I would hope they had a strong enough belief in the reasons their decision was made that they wouldn’t suddenly change their opinion based on a few random comments from the public or being told a decision was unpopular. A decision being unpopular does not make it the wrong decision – it just makes it unpopular. Conversely, a popular decision does not make it the right one. If a Council decided to waive all Development Application fees for 12 months and not charge any rates for 12 months it would be a very popular decision – but not the right one. The Council would be effectively broke within that 12 months! So a great leader should be able to withstand making a decision that is unpopular, but have the ability to listen to public opinion to see if there is new information that comes forward that hadn’t been considered. A different point of view, a long-term impact that hadn’t been considered perhaps. It seems necessary for a great leader to be able to change their mind on an issue but I would prefer that was done on the presentation of new facts rather than just based on the popularity. And if a leader regularly changes their mind based on the presentation of new facts, then maybe the research and initial information needs to be improved.
After digging a little deeper, I actually think Rosalynn’s quote is spot on. Tell me if you think her quote is complete garbage or on the money at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clr Mathew Dickerson
Mayor of the City of Dubbo