02/13/2012 12:07 EST | Updated 04/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Why Are Our Leaders so Lame?

Somehow we've been trained to lower the bar on our leaders and on ourselves. We don't demand vision from our elected leaders -- in fact we often treat it like a punishable offense.


Vision is arguably the most important, most desired, and most celebrated asset of leaders in the private sector. It's considered to be the core fuel and foundation of our success. Our shareholders, our employees, even our competitors assume that we're guided by our vision -- and that everything else, our day-to-day management, simply follows.

And yet, while everyone expects corporate leaders to be driven by their vision and we reward and celebrate those who are best at it, we behave very differently as a society when it comes to our political leaders. We prefer sound-bites; we celebrate cat-fights; and we consistently reward myopic short term "wins" over long term success. Take a look at three current remarkable Canadian examples of this:

First, and best known, of all -- the oil sands pipeline saga. What's our vision, as a nation? To sell more oil to the Americans (or to the Chinese, as a back-up plan)? Sure, that sounds really lucrative for today -- but for how long and at what cost to our reputation? Could we possibly end up winning this battle but losing the war? Is it worth poking our European and American critics in the eye when we know there's so much more than oil that we will need to keep selling to them? Who do we want to be as a nation 50 years from now? Do we even have a national "business plan" that stretches that far out into the future? And -- most important of all -- do we expect our elected leaders to be writing and sharing that "business plan" with us or are we satisfied with them simply managing our affairs day to day?

Second remarkable example: Our country's largest city, arguably now one of the key economic engines of the nation, is stuck in a perpetual political tug-of-war over the desperately needed expansion of its mass transit system. The whole debate is stuck on the liability side of the ledger: How can we get others to pay for it, how can we minimize the expense, how can we avoid "offending" taxpayers, how can we delay the pain? Nobody is talking about the opportunities and the long term benefits. None of the debate is anchored on the type of mega-city our elected leaders might envision or the competitive edge Toronto would gain by effectively, strategically expanding its mass transit system. We're only focused on managing and minimizing today's pain.

And then, a final (and much less known) example of unfortunate myopia: In recent years it became known that one of the simplest and most reversible contributors to all sorts of serious illnesses is the serious deficiency of vitamin D among Canadians -- we live in a northern climate, after all, and we clearly don't produce enough of that vitamin through exposure to sunlight. So, as the problem and the easy solution became widely known, Canadians rushed to their doctors to get tested for that vitamin. And as the popularity of those $30 vitamin D tests skyrocketed, what did the country's largest province do to save money? It actually stopped funding the tests! Who cares about the long-term cost of all those illnesses that could have been prevented by testing our people today -- will anyone ever notice or punish us for deferring much larger liabilities to the future, if we can simply lighten our expense load today? After all, the voters will only reward us for what we manage now -- not for what we're designing for the future that might be difficult to fit into a sound-bite today.

We always talk about how important it is to participate in the political system and we celebrate the fact that we live in a perfect democracy, but in reality we're not good participants and, as a consequence, our democracy isn't perfect. Somehow we've been trained to lower the bar on our leaders and on ourselves. We don't demand vision from our elected leaders -- in fact we often treat it like a punishable offense. Low expectations drive low standards which then drive poor behaviour -- and ultimately that makes for cynical, disengaged citizens and the whole cycle of low expectations feeds on itself.

It may sound a bit cliche, but it's absolutely true: Democracy is what you make of it. And in our country today we should break that cycle and definitely make a lot more of it.