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“Conviction” leaders succeed in the long run

OPINION | Greg Clarke

From Eternity # 70, June 2016

Some leaders genuinely believe what they are saying, and they are profoundly wrong. Take, for example, the record company executive who after auditioning a little band called The Beatles in 1962 showed them the door saying, “Four-piece groups, particularly with guitars, are finished”. Or the publishers who rejected a manuscript from author J. K. Rowling in 1996, stating that “children just aren’t interested in witches and wizards anymore”.

Political leaders can be the same. Driven by conviction, they hang their hat on a particular view of the world and they stick by it, proven wrong as time goes by. A huge example that comes to mind is the politics of race in America and in South Africa and, sadly, in the history of Australia. The ideology of apartheid or race segregation was a conviction of several political movements that was eventually overthrown by moral force.

Other leaders come across as changing their minds with the tide of opinion. This never strikes anyone as very impressive.

We expect people to have convictions, to rise up valiantly for them, even when everyone else is against them. Think of Martin Luther, bravely asserting his theses about the ills of the Church when he “nailed his colours to the mast” some 500 years ago next year. Or Wilberforce in the British Parliament.

Conviction leaders receive praise for acting on their conscience, whether or not you agree with all of their positions. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” is a phrase of conviction; it speaks of integrity – regardless of whether you think Luther was correct.

But is this view more romantic than helpful? Do we really want leaders who will die for their convictions, and never change their minds?P20

The question boils down to what we expect of leaders in a democracy. If they are representatives of the people, we should in fact expect them to sit rather loosely with their own views and seek to represent the majority view of those who voted them in. Their convictions are not so much their own as the ascendant views of those they represent.

But if politicians are leaders of the people, we will expect them to stand on their convictions. We will want them to speak out on the issues that matter to them; to stand firm against opposition – even if it means being unpopular. We will look to them for a social vision, something that pulls people together for the “common good”, a term that is increasingly difficult to define in 21st century Australia.

Can we expect politicians to be both pure of conviction and representatives of the people? I don’t think so; we have to choose which of these we would prefer them to be. The rhetoric of politics demands conviction, while the democratic commitment is to representation. Which do we want?

Unfortunately, most politicians believe they can be both. And so we are stuck with them forever trying to sound convicted, when we know that they are most often seeking to win as many votes as they can (am I unfair?).

Modern democracy, though an impressive and laudable process, does not naturally reward conviction. Coupled with the intense and relentless scrutiny of instant digital media, a leader with convictions isn’t likely to survive for very long. The survivors have all changed their positions on most things many, many times.

But genuine conviction will outlast the media cycle. A leader who consistently promotes a social vision based on the common good will, in the end, be exonerated, regardless of what political fate befalls him or her.

They may not get to be Prime Minister, but at least we will know where they really stand. And we’ll respect them for that.

After all, the leaders who believed in apartheid were wrong; those who were convicted of its wickedness were right. And they prevailed, but only in the long run.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.

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