Change Management
February 6, 2015

The leader’s checklist

Every four years, on average, Canadians elect a government from among a number of competing political parties by choosing the party that best represents their needs and aspirations. Exercising their vote at election time, at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, is the cornerstone of Canada’s democratic process.

While voters return to their full-time activities after an election, the newly elected politicians from the winning party move from electioneering to governing as they take on the responsibilities of managing the wide-ranging policy and administrative levers that are available to them. For the leader of a provincial government or the federal government, the transition from vote seeker to manager of very large and complex organizations is a dramatic one, especially for the uninitiated leader with little management experience.

While the literature is huge – both academic and journalistic – on all facets of managing in the private sector, there is remarkably little published material regarding the management requirements of prime ministers or premiers in our Westminster system of government. Moreover, with the exception of occasional accounts written by former Canadian prime ministers and their senior advisors, there is also very little documentary material that might provide “best practices” for newly elected heads of government.

Since 2013, Canada has elected six new provincial premiers and it is possible that Canadians will elect a new prime minister in 2015. Accordingly, there should be value in providing some observations about the most likely leadership challenges facing a newly elected head of government.

One thoughtful observer is Australian Nicola Roxon. She was a senior minister in both the Rudd and Gillard Cabinets for six years and a Member of Parliament for 15 years, and has recently offered her views about the leadership requirements of government leaders. While Roxon’s comments were based on her Australian experiences for a domestic audience, her advice is, nonetheless, valuable to any incoming Westminster government regardless of country or political orientation.

Few people realize how “bone crushing” the job is for those who have the responsibility of running a government. In time, it robs the incumbents of energy, undermines longstanding friendships, strains family relationships, and exposes personal weaknesses.

As a consequence, being able to anticipate and prepare for the likely management challenges would be of great benefit to a new premier or prime minister. Presented in the following paragraphs is a shorthand checklist of Roxon’s views on the most challenging leadership issues for a new government leader.

First, Roxon argues that, after assuming power, new leaders need to transition to governing and move away from hyper partisanship. She feels that leaders need to move past settling old political scores and fighting previous election campaigns and to instead “use their knowledge of previous successes and failures in order to inform the future.”

Second, Roxon warns that newly elected leaders have a tendency to be too ambitious with regards to their policy agenda. In her view, government cannot cope with a busy agenda and the public cannot absorb it. As a result a leader needs to focus on high-level activities and should spend time on only those things that really matter. In Roxon’s view, readers must plan the direction of the government because: “you can only get to the end game if you have planned where you want to go.”

Third, choose good people as Cabinet colleagues and personal staff. Roxon warns that governing is a learned skill; colleagues and staff must be given the time to learn their craft. So the role of the leader is to create a nurturing environment, to be polite and to communicate. Consequently, effective leaders are delegators and, “if they don’t delegate, they and their governments, ultimately drown in less important matters.”

Fourth, Cabinet should be the central place for policy discussions where a “contest of ideas” is welcomed. Under the right kind of leadership, Cabinet ministers soon learn that debate is about ideas or an issue and not about people or personalities.

Fifth, the public needs to hear from the government on a regular basis. In her estimation, the government must “explain, consult, consider and communicate.” Her bottom line: “if you can’t explain it, you can’t sell it.”

Becoming the premier of a province or the prime minister of Canada after a bitterly fought election campaign is a daunting task for neophyte political leaders. Roxon’s succinct checklist is a useful reference point for the heady and tumultuous transitional days of a newly elected government. It might also be a useful cue card for those lucky enough to become responsible for managing a province or country.

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