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'It’s inevitable a leader will make mistakes and create the conditions for opportunistic incumbents'

Enda Kenny’s future as Fine Gael leader will be top of the media agenda this week, writes Jason O’Sullivan.

THE TENTATIVE QUESTION of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s future as Fine Gael leader will be top of the media agenda following his return from the US.

It was expected that the much anticipated announcement at Fine Gael parliamentary party in February was the ideal opportunity to clarify his position. He chose however to instead bide some time by stating he would conclusively deal with his future as party leader after St Patrick’s Day.

Although the story has somewhat waned in recent weeks, it has not dampened speculation nor softened calls for a change of leadership. Some in the party may have been surprised by his fighting spirit, while others would have expected nothing less from a leader who has thwarted many a political coup.

It has also been reported of late that he could be dramatically appointed as the president of the European Council in early May, a role he was mooted for in the past.

Leadership contest in full swing

Despite such stalling tactics or new role speculations, there is little doubt that the official leadership contest between the main contenders, Minister Simon Coveney and Minister Leo Varadkar is in full swing, albeit in a more covert manner behind closed party doors.

One can assume both are demonstrating the necessary level of guile and charm to influence their party colleagues in their pursuit for the top prize.

In tandem, political commentators and the general public alike will muse over Kenny’s leadership position in the coming week. In contemplation for a likely stepping down, many will begin the ranking of his perceived or actual successes and failures throughout his time at the top.

Much conjecture of this type will depend largely on one’s political leaning or personal feelings towards the man himself as leadership with its inherent characteristics are subjective in their nature. This can at times place unrealistic expectations on a leader and hastily circumvent their reign.

Defining ‘leadership’

While leadership can prove difficult to define, the term embodies well recognised attributes. For instance, a leader is expected to lead by example, inspire others to action, understand the people and their needs, demonstrate integrity and resolve in equal measure, be diplomatic and charming, whilst being strategic and measured and so on.

Leadership and its requirements can also vary greatly between different professions and disciplines, from sport to politics or from the corporate to voluntary sector.

One common underlying theme that binds most of those in positions of leadership, is that once weakness or vulnerability is identified, or credibility and trust is lost, such positions of power often become untenable.

Modern leaders it’s fair to say are under far more scrutiny than their predecessors, particularly those in political power. The constant introspection of every soundbite or political manoeuvre through both traditional and social media platforms leaves little space for error or ill judgement.

Furthermore, with the growth of so called “fake news” in today’s media, political leaders are susceptible to targeted reputational damage through such unscrupulous propaganda campaigns.

Enda Kenny’s handling of whistleblower crisis

In the case of Taoiseach Enda Kenny however, his expected leadership downfall will be largely attributed to his own misguided handling of the whistleblower crisis last month, to which some contributory blame may also lay with his closest advisors.

One will recall that his well-publicised “mea culpa” contritely delivered in the Dáil in February, centred on his inaccurate relaying of information during an interview with RTÉ radio about a past meeting with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone before her meeting Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

Such admissions signalled the green light for this current leadership challenge.

For such a seasoned politician, it must be difficult for him and his team to comprehend the calamity of such erroneous actions, which were quite innocuous in the grander scheme of things. Their potent execution however, has ultimately compromised his leadership tenure.

Given the speed the story was developing at the time of the radio interview coupled with the increasing pressure being placed on both Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, it now appears particularly nonsensical as to why he took such a risky course of action in communicating such untruths to the media, ones that were easily discredited by Zappone herself.

With time, every leader makes mistakes

There is little doubt that An Taoiseach has demonstrated significant levels of leadership throughout his time in office. He could not have become leader of his party in the first instance nor subsequently his country for two unprecedented consecutive terms for Fine Gael, if he didn’t possess certain undeniable leadership qualities as were then valued.

With the passage of time, however, it’s inevitable a leader will make mistakes and in doing so, devalue their own reputational currency amongst their supporters and create the appropriate catalytic conditions for opportunistic incumbents.

What’s clear from these type of leadership debacles both past and present, is that any style of leadership, from democratic to dictatorial and everything in between, requires continued challenge and scrutiny whether it be on the field of play, in the corporate boardroom or Dáil chambers.

To do otherwise would seriously undermine the very concept of positive and powerful leadership and instead create a forum for societal inertia.

Jason O’ Sullivan is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at JOS Solicitors.

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