Ed Broadbent once told me that any great leader on the left must have two qualities.
First, they must have strength in their convictions. They must believe wholeheartedly in the cause, and be able to fall back on strong, authentic principles.
Secondly, they must have the ability to bring people into the fold. To gain people’s trust, and show them that their interests are our interests. To say yes, there is a place for them on the left.
After we had that conversation, and well after I had stopped freaking out about the fact that Ed Broadbent and I just had that conversation, I started to really think about it. Not just what he’d said, but about my own feelings on the matter as well.
For someone as young as myself, I’ve been around the block a couple times when it comes to left-wing leadership, and leadership more generally. In the sixth grade, I tried my very best to win the end-of-year “Leadership” award, but to no avail. They saw fit instead to give me the “Drama” award instead, which… fair.
At the age of sixteen, I worked on my first election campaign, and I haven’t stopped since. I’ve worked for two members of Parliament and a city councillor. I’ve organized rallies, attended too many conferences to count, started activist campaigns, and fought tirelessly in defence of left-wing ideals on campus, in both formal and informal debates.
My last project, however, was probably the biggest undertaking of them all. My partner in crime, Davis Whittington-Heeney and I, recharged the NDP movement on our campus and turned our club into the largest campus NDP organization in the country – not to mention the largest social media presence too!
For a left-wing group on an aggressively liberal campus, we were fighting an up-hill battle. Somehow, that wasn’t the hardest part though.
More difficult was unlearning some of the bad habits that leaders on the left often fall into, or are subconsciously taught. As well, most of our energy was exhausted cleaning up and rebuilding a lot of lost time from previous years. I know that some people wont like to hear that, and I don’t particularly enjoy saying it either. But through all of this I’ve learned that the most difficult but important step to building better movements on the left, is not criticizing your opponents, but learning how to critique your friends.
Something I’ve learned from being involved in many left-wing organizations is that we like to think of the very structure of our groups and the kind of people we support leading them, as being different (read: better) than the other guys. On some level, I do agree with that sentiment, and I think it speaks to Mr. Broadbent’s first point about left-wing leaders. The fact that we want our organizations to be accountable, democratic, and inclusive is something that we are and should be proud of.
But how do we reconcile that desire with the reality that the rest of the world doesn’t always jive with what our organizations look like? I often worry that we don’t prepare ourselves for that reality. Successful leaders, Mr. Broadbent among them, did not get anywhere by throwing up their hands in the face of this reality and saying “well too bad, it’s their fault they don’t get it, and it’s not my job to explain things.”
That’s where Mr. Broadbent’s second point comes in I feel. A good left-wing leader has the ability to work around the uncomfortable realities of the world, and show people exactly why the left has the tools to fix it. There’s no use in having good ideas if you can’t communicate them, and act on them from a position of influence.
I was lucky enough to have that conversation with Mr. Broadbent when I had a significant amount of time left as Co-President, and could then change some of the things I was doing and focus on different aspects of my leadership.
I started this blog because I want all of us on the left to start having those conversations. To start thinking about what kind of leaders we want to be. Now more than ever we have to get serious about proving to people that the left doesn’t just have the ideas to fix things, but the tools and skills to get it done.
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