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A word of advice for Mr. Wonderful

By Tim Powers      

Start talking to voters about them, not you.

Potential Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary has a well-known personal brand, but hasn't yet made his mark on the Conservative Party. Photograph courtesy of Valerie Caviness
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Kevin O’Leary, if he does read or study political history, ought to look at the chapter on Michael Ignatieff. Because if the self-described Mr. Wonderful does enter politics, he doesn’t want to suffer the same spectacular flameout that the former can’t-miss candidate and Liberal leader Ignatieff experienced.

The putative political career of O’Leary has some eerie similarities to Ignatieff. Let us start with the low-hanging fruit: both had impressive careers and achieved success in the United States. Both allowed or fanned the heightening of expectations of their manifest political destiny—pissing people off and stacking the odds against themselves. Both had extensive media experience built on projecting alpha male dominance, either as an intellectual or TV entrepreneur—humility was a foreign element.

Also, neither had much political engagement with the organizations they sought to lead before they contended for leadership—meaning their commitment beyond the fulfillment of personal ambition was often called into question. In Ignatieff’s case, he did decide to run to become a Member of Parliament first before formally seeking the leadership of the Liberal Party when it became available.

After the Liberal defeat in 2006, Ignatieff was popular with a large swath of Liberals because he was the disruptor from the outside whose own personal brand might have propelled the Liberals quickly back to power. O’Leary also appeals to a healthy segment of Conservatives, who see him and his imprint as the fast track back to the top of Canadian politics. “French be damned—he is just so good it won’t matter,” is the thinking of some. Ignatieff initially got that latitude for skills he lacked too. Both likely had a healthy dose of sunshine blown up their rear ends by political fortune tellers practised in the art of forecasting for egos.

Neither Ignatieff nor O’Leary have looked like they were ever comfortable with the average person, one preferring the Harvard faculty club and the other his Muskoka mansion. Success is a wonderful thing and we should celebrate more of it in Canada, but wearing your success like a monogram on your tailored sleeve doesn’t always sell well here.

As Michael Ignatieff’s entry into federal politics was good for a defeated Liberal Party when they needed some good news, if O’Leary enters the Conservative race that will be an overall positive for the party. Proof of life matters after a big defeat, and you can’t accuse O’Leary of being listless. Also, catching a big name always helps. Everybody has self-interest, including political parties.

If Mr. Wonderful wants to fare better than Michael Ignatieff did in politics, he ought to do a few things quickly. First, if he is going to get in the race, just do it now. Stop fooling around and waiting for the circumstances that best suit you, show Conservative members as well as Canadians it’s about them. While you are at it, transform from commentator to candidate—leave critique of the process and its participants to others. Commit to the team you want to lead by offering solutions. Build some bridges, don’t bomb them.

Maybe O’Leary is doing this, but if he isn’t, he should. Go and sign up some people to vote for you. Build the party in the process. Don’t assume the masses will flock to you simply because you are more well-known than the rest of the field. As every successful leader before you has done, show the public you have some appetite and aptitude for the nitty gritty of leadership politics—go to Tim Hortons. If it helps with your transition, tweet about it.

Finally, start talking to voters about them, not you. Political brands are different than corporate brands. They are more about connection than conquest. Recently, you described yourself as a “pissed off taxpayer”—keep at that, and send Mr. Wonderful on vacation. Remember we before me!

Start with those small steps and you could avoid being yet another can’t-miss candidate who, you know, missed it.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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