Back in the 1980s there was a television ad, for cough syrup, I think, featuring an actor who said “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on television.” It was as if TV conveyed authority and expertise.
We know it doesn’t. If it did, reality television star Donald Trump would have done a much better job. He never seemed to quite grasp the responsibilities of a president. Especially an American president.
I’m not a fan of “career” politicians, yet at the same time I like to know that the person in charge understands the system, even if I disagree with their policies. You want someone who knows how to handle a crisis, and an apprenticeship in politics can do that.
Winston Churchill, for example, had several failures in his political life before becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain. No-one saw him becoming perhaps England’s best leader. In a crisis he kept his head, managed his government ably and inspired his people. They voted him out once the war ended.
Leadership is frequently built on intangibles. The things that make a great leader, such as vision and surety, aren’t found in most politicians. Leadership requires a different skill. It is far more than the ability to be elected. Great leaders don’t worry about popularity, they just do the right thing, even if there is political cost. Most politicians are not great leaders.
I don”t know if there is anyway to predict where great leadership comes from. Vaclav Havel, the leader of the movement to end Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, was a playwright, not a politician. Lech Walesa, who played a similar role in Poland, worked in a shipyard as an electrician.
Then there is Vlodiyyr Zelensky, who addressed Canada’s parliament on Tuesday, and who will speak to the US Congress today. The Ukrainian president is an unlikely leader.
Zalensky is an actor. He went from portraying a president in a very popular situation comedy to being elected president. The learning curve must have been huge: unlike on television, nobody writes your scripts, and the director never yells “Cut!” When a crisis hits, perhaps an invasion by Russia, the scene doesn’t fade to black for a commercial.
Against all odds, Ukraine has resisted the Russian invasion, and Zelensky, like Churchill a generation ago, has become the soul of his people. Logic says Ukraine cannot win this war. (Indeed there are no winners in war.) The Ukrainian people though are standing firm with their president.
Zelensky’s refusal of an American offer of a flight to safety may be remembered as the turning point of this conflict. Choosing to stay in thecapital, Kyiv, with Russian tanks approaching, “I don’t need a ride,” he said. “I need more ammunition.” How can the people of Ukraine not rally behind a president who stays to fight instead of takingt the easy way out?
How much longer can western politicians refuse to give Ukraine the aid its president has requested? They refuse to act, and NATO refuses to act, for fear of escalating the conflict, of possibly triggering a world war. Those are valid concerns.
Does true leadership demand that politicians take a stand against tyranny, even if the consequences could be devastating? People are dying now. More will die if the war spreads.
Can Vladimir Putin and Russia be stopped by s show of force? Or would such action plunge us into Armageddon?
I wish I knew. Our paralysed politicans probably wish the same.
Meanwhile they are seeing a lesson in leadership play out on the world stage. And wondering if they can live up to the example being set.