Very few topics have been written about as much as leadership. It’s no wonder, really, since we depend on strong leadership in so many facets of our lives. In the corporate, academic and even sports domains, the absence or presence of strong, effective leadership is what makes—or breaks—an organization. And as Alberta moves into a new realm in 2012, leadership in government is once again a hot topic.
Political leaders are often in a no-win situation. If they make a decision and dig in their heels, they are written off as inflexible, stubborn and out-of-touch with reality. Think of George Bush and his leading of American aggression in Iraq, or Stephen Harper and his government’s decision to scrap Statistics Canada’s long form census. In both cases—against all sage advice to the contrary—these leaders stuck with their original decisions. And both men were painted unfavourably as being inflexible bullies.
But when political leaders do change their minds, they are accused of being wishy-washy. In official political terms, they are guilty of the “flip-flop.” Opposition members and unfriendly media commentators smell blood and attack.
When is it wise for a leader to change course? When do changing circumstances, or even just some personal reflection on the issue, actually demand a change of heart? After all, who has never changed their mind on an issue? When is a flip actually not a flop?
There is no easy answer, but as citizens engaged in democracy we should ask ourselves three questions when political leaders appear guilty of the flip-flop.
The first obvious question is why the leader is changing course. Has the situation actually changed? And if it has, wouldn’t a new decision in light of the new evidence or circumstances be merited? For example, Prime Minister Harper was skewered by opposition members for changing course on income trust funds. Originally he supported them, but in 2007, he suddenly pulled the plug on these popular investment vehicles. The situation in Canada had changed, and he was justified (indeed, correct) to phase them out. As British economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
The second question is whether other political considerations may be at play. Did a cabinet member speak out of turn, suggesting one course of action only to have to reverse the decision after the entire cabinet and premier (or prime minister) comes to a different conclusion? As a voter, how you view this sort of flip-flop depends on whether you believe in the importance of party solidarity. Love it or hate it, we have a political party system in Canada. Speaking in a unified voice as a party is important to give a clear, consistent message to voters.
Finally, voters need to ask themselves if the new decision arrived at by the politician is actually the superior course of action. In some ways, it’s irrelevant what was said beforehand. What ultimately matters is the final decision the leader settles on. If that decision is in fact the smarter policy (and it may take a bit of time to figure that out), then the leader should actually be rewarded, not attacked, for changing course.
Sometimes a flip is indeed a flop. But sometimes a flip is a prudent change of direction in light of a rapidly evolving and changing world. Citizens have the responsibility to figure out which is which.