The Harper government is now entering the second half of its mandate and is less than two years away from a federal election. This past year, the government has faced political challenges regarding the Senate, questions arising from the fallout from disasters such as Lac Mégantic and the Alberta floods, as well as calls for framework planning around energy and wireless policies. The challenges raise complex issues of federal/provincial relations, public sector/private sector partnerships, public trust in institutions, and how best to invest in the future.
Most observers tend to think that our political leaders have the right skills set to solve these sorts of problems. After all, the prime minister has won the leadership of his or her political party, has been elected as a member of Parliament, has survived the scrutiny of the media, managed the varied challenges to their leadership within caucus, and moved policies through the cabinet system. Moreover, since Canadian prime ministers have a very broad range of responsibilities including, for example, cabinet making, agenda setting, appointments, election readiness and managing caucus personalities, there is an expectation that they already have the management and leadership qualities to accomplish their goals.
In short, we assume that these political experiences will allow our prime ministers to be effective leaders and to successfully use the power of the office to get things done. Indeed, there is often a presumption that our prime ministers already possess the full range of skills to manage the ship of state, regardless of individual personality characteristics.
However, on reflection, it is not obvious that this presumption is true. Specifically, observers sometimes overlook the fact that dealing with the affairs of state can require something akin to management and organizational skills, yet this is not an area where most of our prime ministers are experienced. Few have actually run an organization before entering politics and, once elected to Parliament, they rarely have had parliamentary experiences that engage management skills. The exceptions reinforce this concern: in recent time, only Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin had significant senior management experience and only Jean Chretien had an extensive and broad-based range of cabinet experiences. Parenthetically, Kim Campbell, Martin and John Turner had a very narrow set of cabinet experiences and coincidentally experienced very short careers as prime ministers. Notably, Stephen Harper had only limited management experience before becoming prime minister.
Whether or not this experience is essential to the successful managing of the affairs of state has not been the subject of extensive study though, intuitively, it would seem that an understanding of basic management principles would be relevant to determining how best to accomplish a set of public policy objectives. However, there is a further management question that also begs an answer: Does a prime minister have a particular “management style” that he or she brings to bear on his or her approach to governing? And are some management styles more effective than others in trying to resolve large public policy questions such as those currently facing Canada?
This is another question that has received very little attention. While elections and leadership campaigns of most of our prime ministers have been carefully scrutinized, there have been few systematic studies of the ways in which prime ministerial style makes a difference, starting from those transformative first days after a general election to the last days that culminate in the handover to a successor government.
The management literature that informs the world of business and the not-for-profit sector is replete with theories designed to maximize CEO performance. Notwithstanding the issue of whether private sector management theories can or should be applied to the world of political management, it is clear that management style is an important determinant of effectiveness.
To date, the Harper management style has been characterized by top down, centrally driven, and transactional behaviour. It has been effective in implementing the government’s agenda and maintaining public support, but the critical question is whether Harper’s particular management style will adequately deal with his current challenges. Given the need for rebuilding trust with the public and establishing collaborative relationships with stakeholder groups, it remains to be seen if his management style will continue or whether he will be forced to adopt a new way of managing that is contrary to his natural preferences.