“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life‘s coming attractions.”
When I stood for election over a decade ago I learned something firsthand about politics on this island. The way to power and votes was by frightening your own people.
What happens to a group of people fed a constant diet of fear by their leaders? The continuous message of danger, that the enemy is at the gates, may have a galvanizing effect on them for a while. But if the message is unrelenting then something else happens – the message of fear that serves the needs of leaders also destroys something in their followers
A constant message of fear and insecurity from leaders is bound to affect the ability of their followers to have self-belief or to hope. Ray Johnston says that what gets damaged is the “ability to dream for the future. Despair replaces joy … Insecurity replaces confidence. Tomorrow’s dreams are replaced by nightmares”.
The question of underachievement in parts of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland has been a vexing one in recent years. What is the extent of it, where does it come from and what is to be done about it? Many words have been written about it. It has been examined this way and that. In all the research on what is a complex issue has one thing been overlooked – the impact of leadership?
Over years what has been the message to the Protestant community in Northern Ireland from its leaders? Has it been one of hope or fear? Whatever the benefit may have been to those who lead what has been the impact of their message on those who are led?
No one is well served by a Pollyanna type of leadership, where optimism is excessive to the point of naïveté or a refusal to look at reality. One of the most crucial tasks of a leader is to tell your own people the truth. That means having the courage to point out uncomfortable truths. But Napoleon said, “A leader is a dealer in hope”. The Book of Proverbs echoes this with the entreaty, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”. For leadership to not include hope is to feed their followers on a skewed and damaging diet – good for the leader in the short term, bad for the people in the long term.
So, what part has leadership played in underachievement in parts of the Protestant community? There is virtue in asking the question. But in it lies a trap, with the potential to suck us into a never-ending quest to apportion blame.
Better to ask leadership in the present: What vision and dream of the future do you offer? Can you describe the challenges of reality in a way gives hope beyond a corrosive message of fear? To do otherwise is to damage your own people.
Written by Earl Storey