Posted by Kym Bidstrup
They lie, play us for fools, change their minds on a dime and waste our money.
Sometimes they do much worse.
We wouldn’t have them as friends in a fit.
We’d avoid them like the plague at a dinner party.
So why do we keep electing them?
They, of course, are our “leaders”.
And around the world, in any era you care to name, they’re a pretty dodgy bunch.
“The last person to enter parliament with honest intentions was Guy Fawkes” – author unknown
Leaving aside their politics – this article isn’t about partisan positions, it’s more about personality types and why we support them – let’s focus firstly just on how our leaders present themselves.
After all, that’s a lot of why we voted for them, right?
Some frightening examples from the near past.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher; surely among the most patronising public figures ever.
She always addressed us as a schoolmarm might tell a feeble-minded student their goldfish had just died.
Later, her successor Tony Blair would come to embody spin over substance in the most terrifying way, John Major would turn the simplest sentence into mind-numbingly dull word salad, Gordon Brown would perpetually sound angry with us – although we never knew why – and on and on it went.
In the US, former president JFK smiled a lot but was assassinated before we found out how spectacularly unfit – physically, morally and emotionally – he was for office, Richard Nixon turned looking furtive into a cringeworthy artform. Ronald Reagan made everything – from the mundane to military intervention – sound like third act exposition in a B grade movie and the less said about the personal “styles” of Bush Jr and Clinton the better.
Onetime Australian PM’s Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser competed for insufferable arrogance, Bob Hawke surpassed them with ease, Paul Keating looked and behaved like the Grim Reaper’s attack dog, John Howard’s media appearances made him the poster boy for unfailing untrustworthiness and Rudd-Gillard-Rudd was a blur of ego, ambition, subterfuge and government by soundbite.
I want to stress – again – that I’m talking about public persona and perception here, not the particular leader’s policies; some of the above achieved brave and remarkable things for their countries.
But given how they presented themselves, why did we elect them in the first place?
And it’s not as if we’ve learned our lesson.
Our blind spots at the ballot box continue with the current crop.
(Or crap. I wish this was the collective noun for politicians.)
Britain’s prime minister David Cameron sounds like the youngest headmaster ever to address St Trinians; his every utterance at the same time highly rehearsed and yet somehow ridiculous.
America’s Barack Obama looks for all the world as though he’s watching an all-important basketball game that’s going on just behind the camera.
Off to one side.
He’s not actually talking to us, he’s charmingly preoccupied and will get back to us after the match.
Australian PM Tony Abbott’s presentation is part neanderthal, part bully-boy.
(In the interests of balance, Bill Shorten is the “Tribute Band” Opposition Leader; while he turns up for gigs mostly looking the part, his pitch is off and you just know he hasn’t written his own material.)
If the above quote is true, our problem with our political masters goes way beyond how our leaders and would-be leaders look and sound.
It goes to their actual substance.
So, how do voters make that judgement?
And how do we get it so wrong, so often?
Psychologists say it’s complex but a major factor is that we have a “schizophrenic” attitude to what’s strong and what’s weak, depending on the context.
For example, in some political situations, we value and reward unwavering determination; it’s seen as a strength.
In a personal context, we’re more likely to judge the very same qualities as inflexibility and arrogance.
Our leaders, it turns out, are always facing this kind of double-edged sword.
Psychologists agree – broadly – on the qualities that make great leaders.
But the problem is these same qualities can also mask sociopaths, narcissists and just plain tossers.
For example, leaders show intelligence and make choices that move a group forward.
So too, do know-it-all wankers. They’re bright, they know it, and they’re determined to move you in one direction. Theirs.
Leaders embrace responsibility, psychologists say.
Again, we’ve all been led down the wrong path by a loud voice that sounded as if he/she knew what they were talking about but didn’t. Or wildly incompetent people who put their hands up for a job and then failed miserably. People like these were just itching for responsibility. It didn’t mean they were prepared for it.
Leaders, psychologists say, understand their followers and focus on their needs.
So do telemarketers, used car salesmen and jihadi recruiters.
Another trait shown by leaders we’re told is excellent interpersonal skills.
But the ability to influence doesn’t guarantee a desirable – even moral – outcome.
Think Adolf Hitler.
Or cigarette advertising.
Strong leaders have a need to succeed, we’re told.
Again, so do Nigerian e-mail scammers.
Drug addicts who need their next fix.
And angry loners with guns and too much time on their hands.
Psychologists cite courage and resolution as leadership traits.
But too much courage, or courage in the wrong circumstances, can be deadly – to oneself and others.
And people can be “resolute” about the darndest things; it doesn’t make them right.
In 1974, the world’s top scientists were focussed on the coming “Ice Age”, for example.
Perseverance is also listed as a prerequisite for leadership.
But when does single-mindedness, doggedly pursuing some objective against all the odds, become foolhardiness?
It might be another quality that’s downright dangerous in a leader.
Great leaders, according to psychologists, have abundant self-confidence.
So did my late cat, with particular reference to heavy traffic. (You’ll notice I said “late” cat.)
Flexibility and adaptability are leadership cornerstones, psychologists say.
But too often they can be seen in a political context as “backflips” or “broken promises” so politicians tend to err on the side of inflexbility.
In a sense, our leaders are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t, on this one.
Assertiveness is often quoted as a mark of leadership.
And so it can be.
Leaders need to to able to lead.
But in the cut and thrust of political argy-bargy and to “win” the current round of the news cycle, it can easily tip over into outright bullying.
And then there’s the Magic Fairy Dust of politics – charisma – that indefinable quality that seems to make certain people popular.
But to be popular isn’t always right.
And to be right isn’t always popular.
Perhaps that best sums up the dilemma for our politicians.
Sometimes I pity our leaders, I really do.
(Not often; after all, they signed up for it.)
But in their defense, they’re being held to an almost impossible standard, hour by hour, in a goldfish bowl.
They’re being judged – often pre-judged – and then hung out to dry.
And, as the saying goes, they “can’t please all of the people all of the time”
But mostly I just wish they would make better choices.
And that we would too.