If You Have to Hang on to Power, You’ve Already Lost It.

Tara Hunt wrote an interesting blog post which I found on LinkedIn this week called “What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Leadership”, which you can find here. In it, she writes that “As I’ve watched through the seasons, I keep seeing characters die or lead others to their death because of an insane focus on gaining and/or keeping power.”

It seems to me that once you have to “hang on” to power, you’ve already lost it.

While I am rather loathe to give him any more attention, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is a case in point. In his case, he decided to initially deal with drug use allegations by denying them. Then he admitted that he used crack cocaine “in one of [his drunken] stupors”. To try to “manage” these debacles, he went on the ill-fated Sun TV show, “Ford Nation” and denounced the left wing conspiracy who were targeting him. Then his transcribed telephone conversations revealed his drug use and alleged criminal associations were more than rumours. To “manage” that, he has run on about the corrupt Toronto police, and so on and so on. In Ford’s case, “managing” the conversation is critical to his continued stay in the Mayor’s seat.

Similar approaches have been used, it seems, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his handling of the Senate scandal. Rather than deal with Mike Duffy’s inappropriate expense claims head on and in public, the PMO chose to try to make the scandal – and therefore the conversation – go away. Most people would agree that this approach turned out to do more harm to the Conservative Party and the PMO than good. After all, MP Michael Chong’s Reform bill – coming from a party who has, up until lately, been as rank-and-file as they come – is not an accident. It seems that the cracks are beginning to show.

As Hunt argues in her post, when leadership is viewed as a zero sum game, it is already lost. Human beings, after all, are largely rational creatures. And, while I have sometimes bemoaned the ocassional absence of critical thinking, Hunt’s observation seems nonetheless valid.

People would rather be inspired to follow than afraid not to.

Democracies are famous for having a long system of stable rule and bloodless political succession. By contrast, dictatorships require leaders to repress and repress often in order to hang on to power because it is not willingly given by the population over which they rule.

The lesson is that it is always better to inspire than it is to terrorize. Good leaders don’t need to manipulate the message so their followers don’t ask questions. They don’t need to demonize anyone who raises a sound critique. Rather, they straighten their backs and do what needs to be done, even if it might cost them their “power”. Strength of character, vision, and principled stands on issues that truly matter motivate people and give them hope.

I am thus grateful that Nelson Mandela’s passing last week was given so much media attention. Mandela spent many years in prison as a result of standing up against apartheid. To be sure, his imprisonment curbed his freedom and made his ability to lead in the conventional sense impossible. Had he been primarily interested in holding on to power, he would have taken a different approach. But he didn’t. As a result, he was mourned last week all over the world as a great leader. He was the spark that gave people hope and it was their belief in him brought down the apartheid regime in South Africa. The success of the anti-apartheid movement – like Mandela himself – was not the result of zero sum game leadership. And, as a result, his was a power that he never needed to clutch.

Important lessons indeed.

One thought on “If You Have to Hang on to Power, You’ve Already Lost It.

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