Tomorrow’s the big day. The new council will take the oath of office in North Cowichan council chambers and the new term will begin. When I take my seat at the council table, microphone in face, only then will it fully sink in that I’m a councillor.
I’ve taken every chance I’ve been given to prepare for it: three-day councillor school, meeting with former councillor Dave Haywood to learn about finances, Kings View development open house (lesson learned: don’t bring the youngest if she’s hungry), Bonsall Creek exploration meeting (where I sat at a table with Mr. Bonsall—his family has farmed there since the late 1800s), spoke with many of the candidates who didn’t make it, set up my devices (iPhone, iPad) and software programs (calendars, email), and asked a zillion questions of anyone who would listen.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given—by two different people—was to sit, listen, and ask questions during meetings, instead of going in headstrong without yet knowing the rules of the game. I remember when Jen Woike did this in her first term. The public had the impression she was ineffective because she wasn’t saying much.
It was that kind of comment that prompted me to write my final column for the News Leader. The column was due to appear in tomorrow’s paper, but it’s unknown if there will be a paper tomorrow because of union employees calling a strike.
Here she is…
p.s. It’s a full house tomorrow but you can still watch the proceedings on council live. The fun starts at 1:30 p.m.
The Pageantry of Perfection in Politics
“You see, for decades, we’ve tried to sell voters a well-intentioned lie. That politicians were glossy, perfect, astonishingly able figures with all the needed facts at their fingertips and a better idea of what to do with them than anyone without their political glamour could possibly imagine.” Hopi Sen, The Guardian.
When I first told people I was running for North Cowichan council, more than once I heard by reply: Good. We need smart people because the current council is a bunch of idiots. Having followed the actions of the council of the day, I knew they weren’t all idiots. What it meant was that I, too, was destined for idiocy.
The election campaign sets the stage for disappointment. My bright smile and practiced speeches leave people with one impression of me, but few know my whole story. The public will have made assumptions based on that impression and if my actions on council don’t meet their expectations, I’ll have failed them. Yet candidates whose messages aren’t as polished—often revealing more of their story—have less chance of winning.
This pageantry of perfection in politics is one reason so many become disenchanted with government. As leaders, we are expected to have higher morals, better values, and more perfect records than the common citizen, and when reality proves otherwise—as it will if you spend enough time with me—it breeds distrust.
If I want to be a councillor with whom the public has access and can trust the process, it means listening, understanding, analyzing, and synthesizing out in the open, where everyone may see my flaws and those of the system. In doing so, we can all avoid making those same mistake twice.
Hilti, the Liechtenstein-based tool company, figured this out years ago. At staff meetings, employees were asked to share their mistakes, without repercussion. The rest of the staff learned from those lessons and, hopefully, didn’t repeat them.
Being open about mistakes also encouraged Hilti employees to take risks, accepting they may fail along the way. Former Hilti CEO, Pius Baschera said: “Within our culture we accept failure because we believe in learning from mistakes. Making new experiences helps a person grow, and the whole company grows as a result.”
Transparency and communication were the most common requests from the public during this election campaign. Now on the other side of the council desk, I understand better why politicians are reluctant to be open. Appearing unknowledgeable or admitting failure is almost certain to make the public question a councillor’s ability to do the job; I was conscious of this the minute I was elected. In this culture of perfection, there is no room to look foolish.
Well, I’ll change that.
Even if I tried I couldn’t live up to the image of the glossy politician. I can only be myself, which means making mistakes sometimes. When I make those mistakes, I’ll share them with others, which may help citizens adjust their expectations of good leaders, because in spite of this public display of imperfection—or maybe as a result of it—I will be that too: a good leader. As much as I’ll be open about making mistakes, I’m going to work hard to avoid them.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “So low is popular esteem for politicians and the system we operate that there is now little authority for us to use unless and until we first succeed in regaining it.”
If augmenting popular esteem—even a little—for our local government is something I accomplish in this term, my time will have had purpose.
I might even avoid becoming an idiot.