More, and still more, of the same


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It is a truism in military history that generals prepare to fight the last war, while their politicians forget what caused it, and so start the next one.

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It is a truism in military history that generals prepare to fight the last war, while their politicians forget what caused it, and so start the next one.

That combination — of not learning the lessons of the past, or never wanting to leave it — is on constant display these days, at all levels of leadership.

To be clear, it is not just a problem in governments. It is a problem in business, in industry, in public institutions — essentially, in all those structures upon which we depend in so many ways.

In part, it is a generational problem. Those structures are mostly led by older people, those who have the experience (and therefore the memories) of “the way we were.” Well-intentioned leaders might be determined not to make the same mistakes as their predecessors, but this translates into doubling down on doing the same things as before, hopefully just better.

Transformational leadership is non-existent; when someone uses the term, it tends to involve ensuring the old brasswork is brightly polished so it looks brand new. Younger people, who see dysfunctional systems for what they are, and the world for what (unfortunately) it is going to become, just never get the chance to be more than colourful window dressing — the “youth wing” or “youth advisers.”

In part, it’s also a gender problem. Most of those structures in the last generation were led by men. While the proportion of that kind of patriarchal leadership is declining overall, institutional inertia tends to mean while there is a gender shift in leadership, there is not a values shift. You don’t have to be male to behave like a colonizer, after all.

Further, it’s also in part a racial problem. While, as Canadians, we want to believe we live in a racially inclusive and diverse society, we have a long way to go when it comes to accepting and encouraging leadership that mirrors the population. We also need new leadership that doesn’t simply swap out one dominant group for another, and continue in the same imperial style.

As individuals and as a society, we need to focus less on the way we were, and more on the way we are, right now — and we especially need to look ahead to what we could become.

Now that the mayoral election is over, and 37 per cent of Winnipeggers have had their say (what an appalling statistic!), I can state that had I lived within the city limits, I would have voted for Shaun Loney.

Having known him for about 20 years, I believe he wanted the job in order to solve problems at a city level that he has been working to solve in other ways for a good part of his adult life. As the title of one of his books put it, we need “an army of problem solvers” to fight not just this war, but the next one.

Our response to the problems of the 21st century has got to be collective, not individual. It needs to bring people of all sects and sorts together, to work toward a common social goal — and not encourage the pursuit of private profit by members of any elite group, regardless of how benevolent they might seem.

Had any of the other 63 per cent bothered to get out and vote, Loney might be leading Winnipeg in a new direction, transforming its future from the one that will otherwise unfold as surely as ice ruts, potholes and mosquitoes. Mayor Scott Gillingham is seemingly the more cautious choice — though if he is as much a pragmatist as I have been told, some of Loney’s policy ideas may yet find their feet at city hall.

But as I watched the aftermath of our civic elections, I also watched COP27 unfold in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, and how the collective global leadership both there and at the G20 in Bali avoided doing anything remarkably different than before.

I watched the daily round of rancor, disrespect and arrogance in the Manitoba legislature, as members on all sides demonstrate why we need a different kind of leadership there.

Further west, I watched newly appointed Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s government enact legislation that was too odious even for former premier Jason Kenney, who immediately resigned his seat.

Everywhere I look, including universities, where critical thinking should both be taught and expected, leaders preen and praise themselves for being better than the last (guy), measuring themselves against what has happened before, and not looking ahead to what will be needed.

There is no foresight and little forethought. Hire consultants to tell you what you want to hear; stick to the old plan; pretend the world hasn’t changed; and replay the past. In politics, make people angry at what they can’t change, distracting and dividing them into factions that might otherwise have worked together in new ways.

The times still are a-changin’ — but our institutions and their leaders are not.

It’s a historical recipe for catastrophe.

Peter Denton teaches history at the University of Winnipeg and the Royal Military College of Canada.

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