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Whig Standard, August 21 2007

Principles without vision

David Morris
Opinion Columns - Tuesday, August 21, 2007 Updated @ 7:10:25 AM

Somewhere along the way, I tripped across the observation that the measure of the civility of a society is how few laws it has on the books. I've always taken this to mean that while a civil society requires laws, those laws are a concise, coherent expression of its underlying values. Think, for instance, of the volumes of legal text that might be subsumed by a simple yet elegant law that reads: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

With not much more to think about lately other than the humidity, I've been mulling over this. What initially prompted the thinking process was a recent conversation with a relatively new acquaintance. Her success as a parent is, and has been, evident on the world stage for the last several years. Her success as a community-builder is reflected in her contribution to several major initiatives underway in this city.

Our impromptu conversation touched on the subject of visionary leadership. She asked if I considered Kingston's municipal leadership visionary, and it took something less than a split-second for me to reply with a firm "no."

Our previous city council was driven by vision, I suggested. The impact of that vision, like it or not, continues to be reflected in exciting changes across the city - changes that mercifully survived the riptide of the previous council's momentum and this council's supposed focus on principle over priorities.

The conversation left me musing on the connection between vision and principles. Certainly we want our visionary leaders to be principled, but principles alone make for gatekeepers at best, not leaders: people with tremendous confidence in their grasp of the rules of the road, yet no sense of where they're headed. Worse still, in this case it results in people having no sense of where they're headed.

Mediocrity is the least of the consequences of such leadership. How could it be otherwise when unbridled ignorance trumps expert advice; when accomplishment is measured by nothing more than opposition to all vestiges of the previous order; when aspiration is limited to winning petty, dismal bouts of who's boss?

The graver consequence of such stultified leadership is more incoherent laws on the books. Soon, instead of an ambitious, exciting "green" strategy that might serve to unite the community in a purpose higher than itself, we'll have a banal cosmetic pesticide ban. Shortly after it puts a few small business people out of business, the ban will, in all likelihood, languish in the law books, like the vehicle anti-idling and tree bylaws before it, ignored and unenforced.

How uncivilized.

David Morris is a husband and father who has an interest in business and a passion for community development. He is a member of the Whig-Standard's Community Editorial Board.