“One of the roles of leadership is to tell your own people about the way things really are on the ground”. So said the cofounder of a multi million-dollar international company.
Although talking exclusively about business his words could just as easily apply to politics in our own community. Over the years leadership on all sides has failed to tell its own people about the way things really are. It helps explain some of the political paralysis and perpetual crisis with which we choose to live.
All of this has a human cost. Vast amounts of political energy used when the challenges of recession, health or education are knocking at the door. Your own people at times left disorientated and confused. The leaving of a vacuum that fuels frustration. Avoiding rather than dealing with some of the deepest underlying issues of our conflict.
So, what is it that political leadership does not speak to its own people? Ironically it is something known by almost everyone. It is no secret yet we pretend that we do not know it. The unspoken truth is different for each part of our community.
What has unionism needed to be told? Simply that for any sort of future there would have to be political accommodation and a sharing of power. Not just with political opponents, but with sworn enemies.
For the republican community it was this. After so many lost lives, even amongst its own people, the reality is that republicanism was not achieving what it tried to do by armed conflict over so many years.
Most people know and accept these realities yet they always remain unspoken. All sides are tempted to act, in their politics and more especially in their public dealing with one another, as though these things were not the case.
There is always a temptation for leadership to tell their people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.
We are well used to political crises in Northern Ireland. Something peculiar is now happening. It is weariness, even exhaustion, amongst voters. It is more than just a sense that we have been here before, or that politics must be about more than perpetual crisis. Something has broken in people. People are worried for their livelihoods, the education of their children and health services.
Perpetual political crisis with all the human consequences is no longer acceptable when there is so much else for the rest of us with which to deal.
Increasingly people believe more is going on than the struggle to reach agreement over this or that, no matter how big or small the issue.
They begin to feel that leadership on all sides is hamstrung, looking over their backs, boxed in as a result of the things left unspoken to their own people over years.
More and more people wonder if this lurks behind whatever the crisis of the moment happens to be. They also sense that what flows from it is a logjam of decision making – decisions not just about issues that profoundly affect our everyday life, but also what sort of society we are choosing to become.
There is a truth that now needs to be. It is that the only possible future for our community is not some sort of sullen hatred or endless competition between power-blocks. It to find a process of reconciliation. The challenge is to find a way whereby people who have been sworn enemies and injured one another deeply can find a new way of living together.
Difficult as it may be to contemplate the challenge, it is to find a reconciled future.
It is brave political leadership that tells its own people about how things really are. Yet that it is the role of a leader. Leadership is not about those who lead. It is about the people who are being led and about meeting their needs. It is about having a vision of the future that is good not only for your own people but also your neighbours.
The words of Ronald Heifetz say it all – “In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decisions, strength and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going …. in short, someone who can make hard problems simple”. This place is an impossible burden on leaders, whether self-inflicted or otherwise.
Heifetz identifies an alternative.
“We should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn new ways”. That is leadership, and the urgency attaching to the point where we have arrived suggests this is needed now.
Those who lead us must decide what sort of leaders they will be. Those of us who are led must decide what sort of leadership we honestly want – those who tell us what we want to hear or those who tell us what we need to hear.
Responsibility for our future then rests where it has always been – not only with those who lead us but also with us who are led.
By: Earl Storey
‘Protestantism: A Journey in Self-Belief’ Project