Why leaders should never let fear win over common sense
Let us learn from the past and not make mistakes for the future – no matter how popular they may seem now
It all started as a popular mistake, and that’s how it’s going to end, with another one. The democratic process is designed to seek out the opinion of the masses, but only occasionally, every five years or so, to elect a government, to govern, to lead – not to keep asking us what to do next.
I don’t remember why David Cameron had to ask the people what to do. The world’s best leaders didn’t ask people what to do. Once they had the mandate, they led. They may have had to seek support for their decisions, but they made the decisions – that’s leadership.
Of course, they’re human, flawed, fallible – so they made mistakes, some big and some small. Such is the nature of risk and return. But they made progress, they changed things.
I thought I’d reference a few leaders, but you’d have to be brave to face the inevitable criticism for the wrong decisions they made. Right decisions aren’t newsworthy nowadays.
My take on the very close 52-48% outcome of the Brexit vote, some three years ago, is that the older traditionalists and the endangered unemployed youth voted for it, and the sensible middle against it. A triumph of fear over common sense. As if not in enough trouble already, Theresa May called a snap election, seeking to strengthen her hand, but compounded the error by asking the same people who’d made the mistake a year ago, what to do about it now, duh?
It backfired (as did Cameron’s gamble with his ego) and the Conservative Party lost its majority in parliament. She’s never looked forward. Jeremy Corbyn was delighted, but has since also compromised on practically all his standpoints in the name of popularity.
Elected decision makers are increasingly asking others’ opinions. The middle of the bell curve doesn’t hold the right answers, just the most popular ones. The right answer isn’t always popular and it’s more likely found in the tails of the normal distribution curve – three or even four standard deviations away from the mean.
The worst outcome is not that you end up with the average opinion, but with the lowest common denominator where consensus can be found. Sometimes you’ll have to plunge extraordinary depths to find it – ask the MPs in the UK.
The irony is that you have to be popular to be elected leader but once in that position, for the hard decisions, you are alone. You need to get buy-in, right? I’m not convinced. Lead, for goodness’ sake, lead!
The television match official in rugby or cricket, or whatever, like the courts in civil society, has become the referee of choice. Its role is ultimate arbiter – though not perpetual, not real time, not all the time. On-field decisions need to be given more weight. There’ll be some decisions that go the wrong way, but that’s life. The better referees who make the least mistakes will rise to prominence and preside over the most important games.
That pure democracy is flawed is hardly a startling observation, but we need to find a balance. China is already projected to be the most powerful economy in the world by 2030 and, whether you like it or not, the approach that got them there has to be taken seriously.
In their system of “consultative democracy”, which Xi Jinping describes as “the broadest, most genuine and most effective democracy to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people”, the opinions and experience of experts are sought to be included in the mix of deliberations. Some of these are adopted. All of them, it seems, are deliberated further. In fairness, none of the proposals by party directors have ever been voted down. Nonetheless, there at least seems to be a systemic approach to listening, without abrogating precipitous decision making to the masses.
In a world of increasingly populist driven policies where everything is promised free and everybody gets everything, a currency other than scarce capital must be brought into the equation. Merit has to play a role.
Popular mistakes are difficult enough to manage, the cost of repairs is never a popular expense, but at least let us learn from the past and not make mistakes for the future – no matter how popular they may seem in the present.