Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 4: Leadership and Public Policy

coronavirus, covid-19, leadership, public policy, politics, religion, ethics, inequality, taxation, philanthropy

Read the Transcript

The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

GEOFF CAMERON (Director, Office of Public Affairs): Karim and Akaash, thanks so much for joining me today to talk about the role of government and public leadership in our social response to the coronavirus. Before we begin, I wonder if you could each introduce yourselves. Karim would you mind starting?

KARIM BARDEESY (Executive Director, Ryerson Leadership Lab): My name is Karim Bardeesy. I'm the co-founder and Executive Director of the Ryerson Leadership Lab, a leadership and policy institute at Ryerson University. I was formerly a journalist at the Globe and Mail, and a senior advisor to Premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne.

GEOFF: Thanks Karim. Akaash?

AKAASH MAHARAJ (CEO, Mosaic Institute): I'm Akaash Maharaj. I'm the Chief Executive Officer of Mosaic Institute which works on international conflict resolution. I also serve as Ambassador-at-Large for the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption.

GEOFF: Wonderful. I'm so pleased you can join us for this podcast. Karim maybe I can start with you. As this crisis was beginning in Canada, you wrote about the responsibilities of leadership during a time like this. So, I want to ask you to begin there. What do you see as the core values or principles that should be guiding public leadership in responding to a crisis like COVID-19?

KARIM: Thanks. And thanks for this opportunity Geoffrey to get into this. Leadership is such a key element of this work, and this call that the circumstances of this health crisis have put to everybody.

There are a couple of elements that come to mind. I'd like to speak about leadership not just for politicians or political figures, but for anyone in a position of formal authority.

There are a few things that come to mind. One is the need to check in on your people: those constituents to whom you have an accountability relationship because they are members of your organization, because they work for you, because they are direct beneficiaries of your work in a very important way. It's really important to hear how they're feeling and to get a sense of where they're at. In small organizations, people could do this by doing those individual check-ins. In larger organizations, people can look to the distributed accountabilities that they have to the people who are the front-line relationship-holders with the people. So that's a really, really important thing to do. Just to check in and see how people are doing and to have a regime, a schedule, for checking in.

Then, there is a piece around reshaping yourself, your work, and your organization towards the very present work that is in front of us. It's easy, especially in professional settings, to maintain the status quo: to say, "Okay, we'll work from home but the work we're doing is going to be mostly the same." Some of the work that we're doing right now doesn't matter as much, and other pieces of work - that we hadn't been doing as much of, or they might have been on the side of our desk, or it might have been a diversion – takes on new salience.

This podcast is a perfect example of a community coming together and hearing and getting some solace, perhaps, some wisdom, some guidance. That's an activity that takes on new salience. Any organization that is in the work of communicating – and most organizations do, and most leaders do – they have to do more of that.

Those are some initial thoughts. I'll also maybe make an observation, that as we do this outbound conversation and this listening, it's really important to understand that people are processing this information at different speeds. So, patience is a really important virtue at a time when impatience is the primary emotion being felt, and the primary thing that is being expressed towards leaders. Leaders in turn have to be patient and have to be able to take the time to listen and to understand that people are not processing this information at the same speed, and certain needs have to be prioritized over others.

GEOFF: Thanks Karim. Akaash, just drawing on some of the qualities of leadership that Karim was referring to, I know you have written and spoken about “practical idealism” as an approach to leadership. In fact, in one thing you wrote, you said that “we should hold fast to our ideals, even as we're being stripped of our illusions”. It does seem like we're living in a time when that is a particular kind of challenge.

So, what is the “practical idealist” approach for public leadership in the context of a crisis like this?

AKAASH: It's an interesting question. When I speak of practical idealism, what I mean is a twin responsibility: first, to hold to high ideals, but secondly, to press them into meaningful action. It's easy to say the right things. It's harder to do the right things, especially when doing the right thing requires personal sacrifice. It's just as easy to refuse to take practical steps to hold on to some sterile notion of idealism. Ideals without actions are sterile, and actions without ideals are inherently corrupt. I think the question for everyone who wants to make a difference in the world is: first of all, what does a better world look like? And second of all, what do I need to do ethically to help achieve that?

I think in the context of coronavirus, it has some common elements with all sorts of crises that we have faced in the past and will face in the future. But I think one of the most important callings for people like myself, who aspire to be practical idealists in this context, is to remember our responsibilities to ourselves, and our responsibilities to the extent we have influence over others. To recall us all to our better selves. Because it is precisely during moments of crisis, when we most feel under threat, that we are most apt to forget our ideals and our better selves. To act in ways that we think aren't just our own immediate needs in the short term – like, hoarding supplies even if we don't really need them – and which, in the end, don't just hurt others, but they actually end up hurting ourselves.

From that, I think one of the key elements of sound leadership – when I look at leaders whom I most admire myself – they've always been people who have been able to speak to and create a sense of shared purpose between different people. That as much as we may feel under threat as individuals, as much as we might quite naturally feel worried for ourselves, for our own friends, our own families, that ultimately our own well-being as individuals is inextricably intertwined with the well-being of every other member of society. We cannot hope to get through these crises alone. We're only going to get through them individually if we all get through them together.

So I guess ultimately one of the key facets of good leadership, both in the crisis and during more normal times – whatever normal might happen to be – is an ability to foster empathy in oneself and in others. The sense that not only are my interests tied to the interests of other people, but that the interests and well-being of other people are as valuable, in and of themselves, as my interests and my well-being.

Again, that's very easy to say. I doubt very many people would dispute that in theory. It's a question of whether we're prepared to live out those ideals. And whether we're prepared to make the sacrifices that are necessary to live in a society that values every member of our society.

GEOFF: Thank you Akaash. Karim, we've just reflected on some very high ideals. Now to bring things to the political reality right now. You know, in the early days of this crisis it did seem like politicians at both the provincial and federal governments were able to transcend, to some degree, partisanship in order to work together on public policy. We heard premiers praising other provincial leaders of different political parties.

Now, of course, there are signs that attitude has faded somewhat, but nevertheless this has been an ethic I have seen you promote in your work with the Ryerson Leadership Lab: bringing together leaders and thinkers from different ends of the political spectrum to talk together.

So, I'm wondering what you think we can learn from that non-partisan moment that followed the crisis?

KARIM: I think it was productive in the very early days. There's one thing that we've seen, that really hasn't gotten enough attention. I'm from New Brunswick, and I noted that the Premier of New Brunswick, Blaine Higgs (apparently on the advice of his education minister, who was a former leader of the New Democratic Party) – decided to put together an All-Party Leaders Committee. It's a minority parliament there, much like it is federally, and they put together a committee of the four main party leaders with seats in the legislature. That has proven to be instrumental to getting some of the public policy changes through in New Brunswick, and to get some sense of more shared common purpose.

So, we have these tools that we can use to channel partisanship towards things that are more healthy. I think we'll need to continue to do that. We'll need to have ways to keep friction in the system without it becoming personal, and without any appearance that it becomes about partisan political gain.

Some people are starting to now stray back towards that partisan political angle. It's hard to detect. It's something that you have to smoke out. But the most artful of politicians are starting to do that a little bit. It's not a matter of calling it out, it's a matter of calling in that shared purpose and that empathy that Akaash was mentioning.

Can I just say one other thing? Because Akaash said something really interesting around: What is another way of elevating non-partisanship, having healthy partisanship? It's to do exactly what Akaash was mentioning, which is to elevate those non-official leaders, or those institutions, those places that are on the front lines, instead of following the officially deemed leaders in every case. In Canada, we have a huge opportunity to do that through all the front-like work that is happening. In provinces and cities, they don't have lists of vulnerable people. The people who are the most vulnerable , or most in need, are known by those more front-line institutions: charities, hospitals, school boards, universities and colleges, the large social sector that exists. So, I think it is really important for politicians in particular, and business leaders, to have some deference to those other leaders who are closer to the situation; and we can do that. That's something that is easy to get behind. It's easy to get behind the YMCAs, United Ways, the Kids Help Phones, all those organizations that are doing front-line work, as much as it is to get behind the hospitals and the schools.

GEOFF: Yeah, so as you were saying, there is this intermediary layer of society between the individual and the institutions that is also coming to the fore right now. This is the layer of civil society, I suppose, of the community that is somehow modulating the relationship between public leaders, public institutions, individuals and families.

KARIM: Absolutely. And no one told them that they had to have that role. It's just that is how it has evolved, or that is how they've seen their own institution's calling.

GEOFF: Akaash, just maybe building on this point Karim was making about how to nurture a productive deliberation among those with different views, world views, ideological positions: I know at the Mosaic Institute you focus on nurturing public reflection and debate on pluralism and inclusion. As you know, this is a process in which you have the Bahá’í community as firm supporters. We often talk about the oneness of humanity as a core element of our conceptual framework, and that implies engaging with diversity in its fullest sense.

So, I wonder what do you think is the role of a value like inclusion which says that there's truly no “us” and “them” – we are all in a way “one” – in guiding the institutional response to a crisis like this?

AKAASH: I think it's absolutely indispensable, not just during the crisis, but in any just society worthy of the name.

I think the question is always: not how do we all come to unanimity on any important question, but how do we ensure that everyone has an opportunity to have his or her voice heard and that the outcome is one that we can all agree is legitimate, well-intentioned, and at least makes an effort to answer the needs of every member of society. That we don't try to trade all the well-being of some members of society for the benefit of others. I think that Canadians, and people around the world, have an almost infinite capacity to sacrifice, if they feel that sacrifice is just. If they feel that they are sacrificing for the long-term benefit of themselves and others, they are prepared to make those sacrifices. But if they believe that they are being asked to sacrifice for the benefit of others, that makes the entire process illegitimate, and it makes social cohesion fall apart. It breaks the social contract.

During coronavirus, I think a good example of this is in some jurisdictions around the world where people are demanding that quarantines be ended and that people be allowed or sent back to work. The key there is that often, these aren't people protesting for the right for themselves to go back to work, they are protesting for other people to be sent back to work so that they don't have to pay for unemployment insurance payments; so that they can get services that they have been accustomed to receiving. They are protesting, in effect, for other people to risk their lives for their own comfort, and I think that is poison in any society. From a partisanperspective, how does one surface these in a healthy and meaningful debate, especially when lives are quite literally at risk?

When all this is over and we go back to normal, or try to create a new normal, it will be interesting to see to what extent the energized role for civil society organizations that we are currently seeing carries forward. Because I think the truth is the best ideas in society always come from below, they never come from above. That's the way democracies are designed.

The key to democracy isn't strong leaders, it is strong societies that give rise to effective leaders. The agency of individual citizens, of civil society organizations, of community groups, that is real democracy.

I think the societies that have been most effective at responding to coronavirus have been the societies and the governments that have been most apt to take expert advice and expert direction. They have been most apt to bring people into the conversation who don't normally walk the corridors of power. Whether we come out of this a better society or not, will depend largely on whether, after this crisis is over, all those people and all those institutions still have access to the levers of power.

GEOFF: Just maybe continuing off this point about those who don't have access to the levers of power. Karim, one of the major issues coming out of this crisis will be addressing economic inequality. There's going to be a lot of public debt. There's going to be a lot of people still hurting. Presumably we are going to have to think and talk about inequality in a new way. So, from a public policy perspective, what approaches should we be thinking about as we talk about and consider measures of taxation coming out of this?

And furthermore, what's the role of charity and voluntary giving for those who weather this crisis without too much personal impact? How do we address both our government and our charitable organizations with regard to this problem of inequality as we emerge from corona virus?

KARIM: A great question Geoffrey, and I would say, picking up on one of Akaash's points earlier… I forget exactly how you said it. You phrased it much better, Akaash. Everything you said beforehand in your last intervention was poetic and I'm trying to write it down. I will listen to this podcast and catch the rest of it. You made an allusion to the notion of shared sacrifice, in any case. We have not seen that yet. There has been widespread sacrifice. There has been widespread loss, but it hasn't been shared.

We have some institutions that are doing okay. We have some institutions that are being kept whole. I would say in particular that the financial sector seems to be doing alright in this crisis and has a key intermediary function. But it hasn't been really been asked, from what I can tell, to engage in the shared sacrifice that other sectors of the economy, especially small businesses, have been subject to.

Those are conversations that actually have to happen now.

Another sector that comes to mind is the platform, information technology, and social media companies, who have a bit of a different role in Canada in that they generate a good share of profits in Canada, but tend not to pay their share of taxes or have the wealth creation aspect that the financial services companies do. So, I think it's important to, again, look at what the shared sacrifice of large I.T. companies and large technology companies could look like at a time like this. And these are global questions, these aren't just national questions.

If you had this conversation, Geoff, from first principles around inequality, it would have to be a global conversation and it would be one that we would have to start now. And, we're too busy fighting the pandemic to have that properly.

In terms of charitable giving and volunteerism: so important. I think another big conversation we're going to have to have in Canada is: coming out of a crisis, not only do you have to deal with the inequalities, but you have to deal with those things that ended up being really important that had been forgotten.

GEOFF: Well Karim, you mentioned the need to consider inequality in a global context, and maybe I could just pass that question to Akaash. You have done a lot of work, Akaash, on anti-corruption, which is an issue that necessarily implicates the problem of inequality. So, what would it mean to take a global perspective on this problem of inequality in the wake of this crisis?

AKAASH: I think inequality is perhaps the defining issue of our time around the world. All the other issues that we think of as being important – be it climate change, be it poverty, be it the catastrophic number of people who live in want – all come down, largely, to inequality and to the hardships that are distributed unjustly. And, by the fact that societies often lack the resources to maintain basic systems to support their people and to provide their people with access to justice – be that social justice or criminal justice. It all comes down to who has the resources. I think Karim is right, it is a global problem.

From an international perspective, one of the biggest measures, one of the most important measures that countries could take to reduce unjust inequality, everywhere, is to tackle the problem of tax havens. The world loses about 3.1 trillion dollars a year to either criminal tax evasion or money being moved legally across borders into tax havens. And that is, to all intents and purposes, an incomprehensible amount of money. It is enough to achieve all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals six time over every year.

No society can prosper if its citizens feel that they are living under systems of injustice. But it is especially bad during times of crisis. The cost of maintaining the fabric of our society just in Canada, a developed country, through to the end of coronavirus, is likely to be catastrophic and it will cripple public finances. The question, therefore, is how are we going to pay for it?

There will be a temptation to say we can simply carry on as we have done in the past. We will add an enormous amount of debt to the public ledger, and future generations will have to spend the rest of their lives paying it off. Or, we can say that the people who have benefited the most from our society should bear proportionately the greatest responsibility for maintaining that society – especially during times of crisis. As you can probably guess, I think the second is the only fair choice.

If we are to be just, we have to be just in our own time. That means that we have to pay for the services that we have consumed, and it means that the people who must bear the brunt of that should be the people who have most of the money.

To be a citizen of a society, and not just a consumer in the economy, means that you have not just rights, but you have responsibilities. You have reasonable expectations of your fellow citizens, and you have reasonable obligations towards your fellow citizens. A time of crisis is perhaps the best possible time for us to remind ourselves of that, but it is important that that be carried through after the crisis is over.

GEOFF: That's a lovely segue to my final question which is the part of the podcast where I ask both of you about your hopes for the future. Akaash, you said you're not an optimist, but it might be possible to still be hopeful.

It's clear that we're not somehow going back to normal after this crisis. There is something about a crisis like this that is a moment of collective reflection about what we want our society to look like? What it might be possible to change? What alternatives might exist to the way in which things have been working?

So I want to ask you what potential there might be to change governance and public leadership for the better, coming out of this crisis? I'm not necessarily asking you for a realistic prediction, but maybe for your aspirations. What are your hopes for the ways in which governance and public leadership might be different coming out of this. Karim could I start with you?

KARIM: Sure. And again, I was writing all the things that Akaash said for future credit back to you Akaash. I agree, Geoff, that things will not be the same. However, I believe that our politics will not necessarily produce a great desire for change. Because we Canadians, and many people, especially in Western societies, haven't had an experience of collective crisis like this that has them forced themselves to imagine what a better world could be.

What I'm hopeful for is that there will be some form of big debate in Canada around the desire to return to what was, versus the building anew, and that all those “build anew” factions can come together. And that anyone who has the sense that this is an opportunity to build back better – in their various positions, in their various situations, whether they are in a formal authority position now, whether they want those positions, whether they don't – I hope that those dispositions, those people, can find each other and can find ways to build power to make the argument, and win the argument, against those who would think or would prefer to be more comfortable thinking that we need to return back to what was.

That creates huge potential for democratic action. That has huge potential to create new alliances. You're already seeing right now that some of the old thinking around left and right has at least been put on pause.

So, again, to the point earlier that Akaash made around: if there are behaviours that you oppose in crisis, will you refrain from those behaviours when you are not in crisis? There's also an opportunity to ask the flip question: are there new alliances we've built in crisis that we can continue after the crisis? Are there new dispositions that we have? And to me, this disposition, this potential to build back better, can unite people from a wide range of institutions, and dispositions, and perspectives, and ideologies.

I look forward to all those people who want to build back better, asserting themselves, finding community with each other, and finding official power in institutions that can help them actually do that work.

GEOFF: Akaash, what about you? What are your hopes for what could come out of this?

AKAASH: Well I should say that I am a pathological optimist. So I choose to believe that we will come out of this better and stronger, because that is the only way to lead our lives. If we don't come out of it better and stronger in the short term, I choose to believe that we will in the long term.

In terms of some of the things I hope will come out, one is that I hope that we will come out of this process with better reflection on what is important to us and what we value in society. So it strikes me as extraordinary that we all take it for granted that essential workers are people like grocery store clerks, like nurses, like people who pick up refuse, but normally we don't treat those people or reward those people as if they are the most important members of society. I hope that after this is over, we will remember that the people we relied on to keep society going when things were at their worst, are people whom we should continue valuing when things are at their best.

The second thing is that this period is a remarkable period for social and economic experimentation. So, there are public policy measures that, in the past, have been considered too bold, too large, too risky to even contemplate, like a universal basic income. Well, now we are creeping towards public programs that look remarkably like that, and we have an opportunity to find out: well, how do people really behave when they have universal basic income? Do they use that money to create opportunities for themselves that eventually make them more productive members of society?

The third is, I'm hoping that it will persuade Canadians that there is a role for shared action – for public action in solving public issues. For I'd say the past twenty years at least, there has been increasingly a view that the great issues of our time have to be solved, to the greatest extent possible, through the untrammeled and unrestrained action of market forces. That has bred not just skepticism about government, but the very idea of shared responsibility and shared democratic action – whether it is through government or through community organizations. Now when we are at a moment of crisis, when our lives are literally at risk, we recognize that the only way we are going to get through this is if the public at large takes this moment in hand through democratic institutions and through community organizations.

If there are things that we need to put aside during a crisis, do we really want to bring them back when the crisis is over? This should give us a chance to think anew, to imagine the world as it should be, and to try to throw off the shackles of our fears and preconceptions from the past.

GEOFF: Well that's as good a note as any to end on. Thank you Akaash and Karim so much for bringing the depth of your insight and experience to bear on this conversation.

KARIM: Thank you so much Geoff.

AKAASH: Thank you.