Skip to content

10 Valuable Lessons for Aspiring Leaders

June 4, 2017

Leaders 1.jpg

The motivation for this post stems from my own leadership journey over the past 30 years. During this time I moved in and out of formal management positions, worked as a project manager, thought leader, and economist. After concluding a three decade career with the Canada’s public service in 2010, I did independent contract work for a few years and then returned to work in the private sector. Coincidentally, I began my working career in the private sector in 1978 in consumer lending.

In addition to learning a lot from a two-year Masters in leadership program in the late nineties, ongoing reading on new concepts and developments in the leadership field, and networking with like-minded people, many of my most powerful discoveries occurred earlier on in my career when I became a new manager.


We like to talk about learning experiences, but mine were especially jarring as a young manager. I fell on my face more than once. But I picked myself up, dusted myself off and continued on. It’s all about learning through trial and error. Yes, reflection is a key aspect of leadership growth; however, don’t live life looking in the rear-view mirror.

The following 10 lessons are not aimed at just those who wish to move into managerial positions; they’re also for those who work as project managers, team leaders, thought leaders, relationship builders, etc. And of particular note is that those holding senior positions in organizations should reflect on these lessons.

It’s important to remember that management is an appointment to position; leadership is earned. If you have no willing followers, then you’re not a leader. You may rule through dictate and compliance as a manager, but to have a true followership means enrolling others in your vision.

Here are the ten lessons. And please note that they’re not in any particular order.

1) Create and nurture a learning environment where people develop the skills and competencies that will become their toolbox for life. Don’t expect traditional loyalty to the organization. As a leader, your job is to bring out the best in people and to maximize their creativity, productivity and output.

2) Constantly walk the talk. Don’t be a cave dweller, hiding out in your office behind a closed door. And don’t just be physically visible but be present in body, mind and spirit. Oh, and park the smart phone when you’re at meetings and speaking to people.

3) Show that you really care about the people you lead and with whom you work. Don’t nickel and dime people on their work hours. If you set the right tone and climate in the workplace, you’ll see an impressive increase in people engagement, creativity and accomplishment.

4) Develop an effective BS meter, where you know fact from fiction, truth from hype. By avoiding getting swayed by organizational manipulators and by sticking to your values, people will respect you all the more.


5) Realize that organizational cultural change is not a tactical exercise in ticking off the task list. It’s about people engagement and relationships. It takes time and patience – plenty of the latter.

6) Link training and learning to job performance and when it’s needed. But it’s also necessary to take the long view: investing in people for the long-term demonstrates your commitment to them.

7) Be honest when you ask for feedback, whether from small or large groups. Bringing people together at workshops, conferences, town-halls, etc. to generate ideas and recommendations, and then to ignore them, is the ultimate act of disrespect. Honour and value people’s contributions.

8) Focus on results. Let people figure out how to do their work. Coach, but don’t smother them. Micro-management is for the insecure, and something to avoid at all costs.

9) Share the leadership. Step back when you realize that you’re not the best one to lead at the moment, regardless of how high you are in the hierarchy. Let go of your ego.

10) As a leader you’re also a change agent. Be open to outcome, not attached to it. Learn to love the unknown and the opportunities and challenges it presents. Know fear; respect it; value it; transcend it.

So there you have ten lessons for leaders at all levels. This is certainly not the definitive list of what leaders need to pay attention to, but it’s a start. It will help guide you through tumultuous times, keeping you focused, energized and centered. The last word goes to 6th Century B.C. Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: “We did this to ourselves.”

holisti-leadershipClick here to download a complimentary copy of Jim’s e-book Becoming a Holistic Leader, 3rd Edition.

jim-taggartVisit Jim’s e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.

Five Ways to Serve Your Organization and Build Your Leadership Skills

May 28, 2017

Lead 1.pngThe process of building our personal leadership skills isn’t done overnight. That’s rather obvious. But what may not always be clear is that leadership development within organizations is, at its core, a reciprocal process. The same applies to community service and leadership development, though admittedly in this context when one serves their community the enlargement of leadership capacity is one outcome.

The bigger challenge–hence the purpose of this post–is integrating the personal aspect of leadership growth with serving the needs of the organization. This is typically a grey area in organizations, whether public or private, as the employee struggles to meet the organization’s annual goals, live the vision, and simultaneously attend to her personal learning and developmental needs.

Smart organizations ensure that this stressful process is integrated in the employee’s daily work and scheduled performance-learning plan reviews. But these organizations are the exception.

One framework to consider comes from Peter Block, a longtime advocate of stewardship, encompassing both managers and staff. Each and every one of us must learn to put self-interest aside and put service to the organization first. Only by doing this will an organization truly evolve to a higher level.

Leadership 2To serve an organization well, Block puts forth five pursuits people must follow. He refers to this as enlightened self-interest.
1. Meaning: People engage in activities that have personal meaning and that are needed by the organization. Substance takes precedence over form.

2. Contribution and Service: People want to contribute positively to the organization. Specifically, they want their efforts to connect to the organization’s purpose.

3. Integrity: People at all levels of the organization must be able to express their views and what they observe taking place. Feeling “safe” to speak out is essential to a learning organization. People must be able to admit their mistakes. They must believe that the “authentic act” is always in the best interest of the organization.

4. Positive Impact on Others’ Lives: People spend a large percentage of their waking lives at work. Developing close relationships with co-workers, in which their growth and development is cared about, makes sense to most people. Yet the opposite is true to a large extent. For example, the fear a manager may have of laying off a subordinate one day may inhibit her from establishing strong relationships with staff.

This also occurs with co-workers, especially during a period of downsizing. The consequence is an atmosphere that lacks honesty and openness, one consisting of shallow and brittle relationships. How can teamwork exist, let alone prosper, in such an environment? Strong teamwork requires a high degree of interdependency and close relationships.

5. Mastery: This involves people learning as much as they can about their work. People take pride and satisfaction in their work when performing at high levels. Learning and performance are intertwined.

The strength of following these five pursuits is that it does not require the approval of senior management.

Each of us needs to set an example to our peers.

Each of us needs to set upon a journey of self-discovery.

You create a culture of contribution when you seek to meet both the mission of the organization and the needs of the people.

– James R. Fisher Jr.

holisti-leadershipClick here to download a complimentary copy of Jim’s e-book Becoming a Holistic Leader, 3rd Edition.

JIm PhotoVisit Jim’s e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.

Why Integrity Matters to Leadership

May 14, 2017

SajjanHe was born on September 6, 1970, in Bombeli, a village in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district. His father, a Sikh, was a police constable with the Punjab Police. The young boy would grow up to become a highly respected police detective and reservist soldier.

When the family emigrated to Canada in 1976, young Harjit Sajjan was only six years old. His mother worked on the berry farms in British Columbia’s lower mainland, and sometimes Harjit and his older sister would help her. The father, meanwhile, had been working at a sawmill for two years before the family’s arrival in Canada.

At age 19, Sajjan joined the Canadian military. Over the course of his career he advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel. During this time he served in four deployments abroad: first in Bosnia and then three in Afghanistan (he was wounded in his first deployment). However, it was upon his return from Bosnia that he joined the Vancouver police department where he worked for 11 years, notably his latter years in the anti-gangs unit.

Never to stand still and stop contributing to his country, Sajjan entered politics to win the Liberal riding of Vancouver South in the 2015 federal election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, himself a relative newcomer to politics, appointed Sajjan as Minister of National Defence. Given Sajjin’s background, many people applauded the appointed, though he was a rookie politician being thrust into one of the most senior cabinet positions.

Take a moment to read my November 29, 2015, post The Way of the Warrior Leader which profiled Sajjan and other respected soldiers.

All was well in the ensuing months with the new Defence minister. Sajjin was wobbly in his performance at times; however, he had the respect of the military, and notably was warmly greeted in Washington, D.C., by Defence Secretary James Mattis (appointed by President Trump in early 2017).

And then things unravelled quickly—very quickly.

Sajjan 2.jpegIn a still-to-be-understood action, Sajjan lied about his role in Operation Medusa, a Canadian-led offensive against the Taliban in 2006, with support from the U.S. military and Afghan soldiers. In a speech in India in spring 2017, Sajjan claimed that he was the architect of Operation Medusa. While some claim that Operation Medusa was a great success in what Sajjan stated as “removing 1,500 Taliban,” the reality is that it showed Canada’s unpreparedness for taking on the Taliban in an inhospitable environment.

Sajjan had worked as a senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, and during Operation Medusa his role was liaison between Canadian commanders and local Afghan leaders. However, word leaked out about his comments in India and in no time Sajjan’s self-inflated role in Operation Medusa hit the headlines in Canada. In the House of Commons, he was continuously under attack, with the Conservative Party going overboard in its criticisms of Sajjan. The Defence Minister apologized repeatedly, though never fully revealing why he lied. Here are just two of his public statements:

“I’d like to apologize for my mistake in describing my role. I’d like to retract that and I am truly sorry for it. I in no way would like to diminish the great work that my former superiors and our great soldiers,”

“What I should have said is that our military successes are the result of the leadership, service and sacrifice of the many dedicated women and men in the Canadian Forces. Operation Medusa was successful because of leadership of MGen [Ret’d] Fraser and the extraordinary team with whom I had the honour of serving.”

Sajjan 3On May 3, CBC Radio’s Ontario Noon did a province-wide phone-in on the controversy over Harjit Sajjan’s comments. Callers included many current and retired Canadian Armed Forces members who took opposite stands. Some believed that he should resign as Defence Minister, while others defended him. The same was with the public who phoned in. However, perhaps of special concern were comments which basically said: “What’s the big deal? Politicians lie and deceive all the time. Why should Harjot Sajjan, a soldier who served his country admirably, be punished?”

Their point is taken. Yet it overlooks the context of Sajjan’s transgression: he was a soldier in a leadership position to whom subordinates looked up to and took orders. Attempting to polish his ego and political stature by grossly overstating (to put it mildly) on two separate occasions his role in Operation Medusa is a sad statement on his leadership, personal ethics and integrity. Check out this commentary from a Canadian war correspondent.

It also doesn’t say much for the Canadian public’s expectations of their elected representatives. It’s akin to a lowest common denominator in which politicians—notably those holding cabinet positions—are expected to break promises and engage in inappropriate behaviours at some point in their careers. It’s not surprising that Canada’s turnouts at federal elections are typically under 60 percent.

Prime Trudeau was under steady pressure to fire Sajjan as defence minister, yet he refused. This is the nature of the political game. Canada has a long history of federal cabinet ministers either stepping down for inappropriate behaviours or being forced out by prime ministers. It’s nothing new. Sometimes, an offending cabinet minister will go to the penalty box for a year or two, to later pop up in another cabinet portfolio.

In Harjit Sajjin’s case it’s a little different. This is a retired soldier (and former police office) who is leading men and women in uniform. He is their role model who must demonstrate consistent ethical behaviour at all times. It’s a very unfortunate story, especially for a man who was so well liked and respected by his peers and the public.

However, it’s about integrity. The proper action is for Harjit Sajjan to step down from his role as Minister of National Defence and go to the penalty box.

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
— Charles Spurgeon

holisti-leadershipClick here to download a complimentary copy of Jim’s e-book Becoming a Holistic Leader, 3rd Edition.

JIm PhotoVisit Jim’s e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.

10 Leadership Lessons to Succeed During Turbulent Change

May 7, 2017

Storm Clouds.jpgIn my ebook Workforce of the Future: Building Change Adaptability, 2nd Edition I talk about four major forces that are exerting major effects on our planet and its 7.5 billion inhabitants. However the core of the ebook is about leadership, specifically what each of us can do, regardless of our status in society, to adapt to turbulent change. I’ve spoken about 10 leadership lessons in the past; here they are again in summary form.

Lesson #1: Commit to Your Job
There’s a saying that people don’t quit their jobs but rather their bosses. However, there comes a time when commitment to our work and employers must be reconciled with the tendency to leave jobs when we become frustrated. To commit to your job means aligning yourself with your organization’s mission, understanding who are the customers or clients, and determining where you add value. If you find that you’re not adding value, then some personal reflection is needed on either developing an exit plan or determining how you can contribute positively to the organization.

Lesson #2: Adapt Quickly to Change
When a big change hits your organization, emulate Superman by quickly shedding your old corporate duds for the new approach. If you can’t find a phone booth, any office will do. But the key point here is to understand that your organization is about to go through some whitewater change. By adapting quickly to the change, you’ll significantly reduce your stress while simultaneously showing management that you can be counted upon when the going gets tough and ambiguity is the daily challenge.

Lesson #3: Learn to Focus and Go for Quality, Not Quantity
In organizational work, multitasking has the negative effect of valuing the superficial and mediocrity. In what has been labeled the knowledge age, in which employees are supposedly knowledge workers, multitasking is dumbing down organizations.

When it comes to leading people, being present is a vital element of effective leadership. If you’re trying to multitask while speaking to one of your co-workers who has dropped by your office, you send out the message loud and clear that the individual is not important. Focus on what your colleague is saying; at that moment he or she is the center of your attention.

Lesson #4: Be a Promise Keeper
When you keep your promises and commitments to your co-workers, staff and bosses, including those with whom you interact in your community, you’re viewed as someone with integrity and whose word is gold. When the situation arises where you’re unable to keep a promise, then it’s essential to take the time to explain what happened to the person or people who were affected. Refrain from making up excuses; just be up front and people will be much more likely to be understanding. They may even respect you more when they see you admitting a mistake and acknowledging that you’re human.

Lesson #5: Embrace Uncertainty and Ambiguity–Ride the Wave
Trying to resist the onslaught of whitewater change is futile. The metaphor of learning to ride the wave is very apt, one that creates a positive and energetic outlook. At the organizational level the effects of globalization–characterized by most work being capable of being done anywhere around the world, thanks largely to communications technology–are having profound effects on workers.

What’s important to keep at the forefront is not who’s right on the job distribution issue, but rather to identify what YOU control and do NOT control. You control your morale, willingness to learn and adapt, and desire to seek out new opportunities. By assuming the identity of a change master, you’ll greatly reduce the stress that’s generated when your organization goes through the gyrations of major changes. And you’ll signal to senior management that you’re equipped and ready to contribute to helping the organization meet its new challenges.

Woman.jpegLesson #6: Be a sponge for learning–and then SYNTHESIZE
The amount of information is growing exponentially. It’s no doubt overwhelming with the massive onslaught of information we must try to absorb. As much as it’s important to keep learning and to expose ourselves to new ideas and perspectives, the critical skill to acquire is how to synthesize this data overload.

Lesson #7: Own your attitude and behavior
How often have you seen bosses or co-workers trying to dump their problems on others? What was the effect? Did anyone call the individual on it? What was the response from management? When behavior like this occurs it can have a corrosive effect on the team and even more broadly on the organization. Don’t turn a blind eye when you see it happening. Speak up and empower yourself to help correct the behavior. Lead by example.

Lesson #8: Be a problem solver. Not finger pointer
It’s easy to identify problems and complain about them. Some people excel at this. The bigger challenge is exploring solutions to problems, and especially doing so in a collaborative manner. When you approach your work from this perspective you automatically start adding value to your organization. Avoid the finger pointers; instead, seek out people who want to be part of finding effective solutions for organizational issues and problems. You’ll be seen as the person who makes things happen, who fixes problems and, especially, adds value to your organization.

Lesson #9: Practice what you preach
Treat people as how you like to be treated, whether it’s responding to a request for information from another unit in the organization or serving a customer, client or supplier. When others see that you act consistently in accordance with what emanates from your mouth, they’ll take you more seriously and respect you for your judgment and views. Aligning what you espouse and what you actually practice is a cornerstone to leadership integrity. This is essential to creating a loyal followership.

Lesson #10: Become a barrier buster
Avoid becoming entrapped in silo thinking, in which people hoard information, reject ideas from other parts of the organization (as well as from outside) and attempt to protect their turf. Rise above this and get known for being a barrier buster who openly shares information, connects people, and communicates effectively across organizational boundaries. You’ll get noticed by management as someone who understands the bigger picture and is contributing to the organization’s mission and vision.

This brings with it demands for new leadership approaches. Top-down, command and control management styles have no place in our new world. It’s about collaboration through worker self-empowerment, where calculated risk-taking is a daily endeavour and individual and collective learning is nurtured and valued.

Take some time to reflect on these ten leadership lessons.

Where do you see yourself strongest? Where do you see yourself needing to strengthen your skills?

Start small; focus on one or two areas. Commit yourself to becoming an effective leader.

By assuming the identity of a change master, you’ll greatly reduce the stress that’s generated when your organization goes through the gyrations of major changes.

– James Taggart

holisti-leadershipClick here to download a complimentary copy of Jim’s e-book Becoming a Holistic Leader, 3rd Edition.

JIm PhotoVisit Jim’s e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.

The Rude Society: Are You Contributing?

April 30, 2017

Rude WomanSomething’s happening out there, and it’s not good. It’s at times surprising, other times obnoxious and, increasingly, downright scary.

So what’s up?

We’re getting ruder as a society. By “society” I’m referring to my fellow Canadians and our neighbours to the south (some 325 million Americans), but not to forget those who live in other industrialized countries.

Human beings, according to Charles Darwin, are supposed to be evolving. However, given the the growing trend of people losing civility, becoming more impatient with others, and more confrontational, it appears that a segment of the planet (namely wealthy countries) is devolving. While your faithful correspondent on leadership issues isn’t a psychologist, it would be fair to suggest that the rapid pace of change—driven by technology, the focus on wealth and material well-being, and the rise of the self-actualizing individual (“it’s all about me”)—and its unknown future effects is at the core of this rudeness trend.

People are more geographically dispersed from family, relationships have become more virtual, and face-to-face relationships are suffering. It’s easier to send out a nasty email or text message instead of having a conversation face-to-face to address a disagreement.

Social media comments have degenerated to the level where it’s not worth attempting to read replies to articles and blog posts. Frequently they’re anonymous, reflecting cowardice on the commenter’s part. People react viscerally without thinking first to what they read online.

Would you actually say that to someone’s face?

Then they’re the trolls who, obviously living miserable lives of despair and pain, belittle and attack others on the web. Indeed, virtual bullying has been responsible for the suicides of several young people who could no longer take the abuse and humiliation.

Mad Driver.jpgLet’s look at just a few examples.

United Airline’s recent creative method of expelling a passenger (a 69 year-old physician) who refused an involuntary over-booking request to leave the plane is an over-the-top example of how authorities abuse their power by totally forgetting any notion of civility and treating customers with patience and respect.

A few years ago at a Starbucks in the United States, a young woman flipped out and threw a cup of hot coffee in the barista’s face because she wasn’t happy on how she’d been served.

Then there was the February 2017 case of a 69 year-old male in Saint John, New Brunswick, who deliberately ran over a 23 year-old man with his Audi SUV (dislocating his shoulder in the process). The perpetrator, a retired businessman, had followed the victim in his car after the two had exchanged words in a parking lot half an hour earlier. In April, the man was sentenced to time served and lost his driving licence for a year. The young man has launched a civil action case.

At the other end of Canada in Edmonton, Alberta, a horrifying case of road rage occurred in March 2017. After dropping her husband off at the train station early in the morning, a woman tooted at a car that had pulled over at a stop sign. She was merely giving a heads-up honk that she was going around him. When she arrived at her house, she realized that the man driving the vehicle at the stop sign had followed her home. She was already outside of her car when he attacked her with a crow bar, breaking both her forearms. He then attempted to run her over.

A few weeks later a 28 year-old man was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder.

What the heck is going on in society—and in “polite” Canada?

Middle fingerWe’re getting ruder, and more violent, by the day, showing absolute intolerance and zero patience for anything that appears to piss us off or that’s contrary to our belief system.

We’ve lost perspective as a society, forgetting how good most of us have it when it comes to material well-being, physical health and living in relatively safe communities. Except our collective mental health seems to be suffering.

I’ve noticed in my own city of Ottawa (Canada’s capital of 930,000 residents) that drivers are becoming increasingly belligerent, not just speeding and running red lights, but making illegal passing manoeuvres, honking for no reason and making physical gestures. And I’ll tell you, it requires effort for me not to fall into that trap of becoming what I’ll call an asshole driver. Fortunately my wife, Sue, has a lot of perspective as a driver, so is a good role model.

Where this rudeness trend goes and for how long is unknown, but it’s reasonable to expect it to become more ingrained in society. The devolution of our species continues.

Are you contributing to the rudeness trend?

What are you doing to maintain perspective and civility?

We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.
— Charles Darwin

holisti-leadershipClick here to download a complimentary copy of Jim’s e-book Becoming a Holistic Leader, 3rd Edition.

jim-grand-manan-fbVisit Jim’s e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.

Who’s Your Tribe?

April 23, 2017


Human beings have an innate sense of wanting to belong to a community. It’s genetically ingrained in us. This leads many people to actively seek out a like-minded group, or tribe, to join.

It might be Gen Y Hipsters, whose appropriation of elements of Baby Boomer culture creates a self-perceived uniqueness. It could be older women who are cancer survivors and who have formed a support network. It may be a LGBTQ group. Then there are those who are musicians of a certain genre, or perhaps artists or photographers. Or it could be people who seek to initiate political change through organized protest (eg, Occupy Wall Street—composed of sub-tribes). And one can’t forget church tribes, each with its own uniqueness and interpretation of the Bible.

Whatever the tribe, the underlying premise is to provide a means for people to share their experiences, seek support from one another, and initiate change. But what do we mean by “tribe?”

In its more traditional sense, the word “tribe” has a much different definition than how it’s used today by some people. At its most elemental form, a tribe is a clan-based social structure. Encyclopedia of Britannica explains it this way:

Tribe, in anthropology, a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups, having temporary or permanent political integration, and defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology.

Oxford Dictionary defines a tribe as :

A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.

In contemporary urban usage, “tribe” has been morphed into a wholly different distinct meaning. Marketing genius Seth Godin has perhaps been the most outspoken in creating a new meaning for the word tribe and stressing the importance of how people as members of tribes can initiate change though self-empowerment. Through his books, blogging and public speaking, Godin’s messaging is based on the generation and distribution of ideas in a digital world. Take a moment to watch his excellent Ted Talk, The Tribes We Lead.

At the core of Godin’s talk is leadership and how tribes are enablers to initiating change through the generation and distribution of ideas. As he puts it: “Tribes are everywhere…. Tribes are what matter now…leading and connecting people and ideas.”

He stresses the importance of pushing back to challenge the status quo. And to do so means that we need to find something worth changing and then identify or create a tribe with people who really care about an issue.

Gen Y TribeGen Y (Millennials) has a greater propensity towards tribalism, in contrast to their older cohorts (Gen Z and Baby Boomers). This isn’t surprising, given that Gen Y is more relationship-based and collaborative, both at work and in the community. It’s an intelligent response to the changes taking place in the workplace and in society at large.

In an age of turbulent change, full of uncertainties for young people, becoming a member of a tribe has growing appeal. Being part of an identity in which values are shared and where inter-personal support is a key feature can be instrumental in helping people navigate the challenges that relentlessly emerge. And to Seth Godin’s point, it’s about people self-empowering themselves to become leaders and working constructively to make positive changes to society.

Here are three questions that Godin presents at the end of his TED Talk. Take time to reflect on them as you proceed with your leadership journey.

1) Who are you upsetting? (If no one, you’re not challenging the status quo)

2) Who are you connecting? (It’s about building inter-personal relationships)

3) Who are you leading? (If there are no followers, there’s no leadership)

Who’s YOUR tribe?

It turns out that tribes, not money, not factories, that can change our world, that can change politics, that can align large numbers of people. Not because you force them to do something against their will. But because they wanted to connect.
— Seth Godin

holisti-leadershipClick here to download a complimentary copy of Jim’s e-book Becoming a Holistic Leader, 3rd Edition.

jim-grand-manan-fbVisit Jim’s e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.

“Call Me Nick!” Leadership in Running Shoes

April 16, 2017

Running Shoes

We were dressed in our splendid attire: wool suits, buffed shoes and combed hair. My peers and I –some 60 middle managers from around the region– were attending a manager’s conference in 1991. We anxiously awaited the arrival of our demi-god.
And who might that have been?
None other than the Deputy Minister (DM) of our federal department, who had flown down from head office in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. We were cloistered in a community college in the small, beautiful city of Edmundston, NewBrunswick, just a stone’s throw from northern Maine.

We waited with trepidation for Nick Mulder’s arrival. A deputy minister, for civil servants, is to be worshipped, a form of immortal beast, who knows all and who sees all—a purveyor of the future. (Or so goes the lingering mythology). A DM to the uninitiated is equivalent to a CEO or president in the private sector. His or her boss is the Minister, an elected politician (a Secretary in the U.S.).

Finally murmurs broke out: “The DM is here!”

Suddenly the deputy minister walked into the room. He took one look at us and broke out laughing. “Why the heck are you people dressed up?” Standing before us was our demi-god, except that he had on casual pants, running shoes and a rumpled shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He then worked the room, shaking our hands and exclaiming repeatedly, “Nick Mulder; good to meet you. Call me Nick!”

Well, that proved to be a drycleaning waste of time.

Fast forward to a few months later.

Nick Mulder was on his way to the regional office in Fredericton where I worked as chief economist. I was a newbie manager in my mid-thirties, and was dutifully impressed with such immortal beings. A suit was in order that day!

“Call me Nick” arrived and met first with my direct boss, the executive head of the New Brunswick Region. The DM then wanted to tour the regional office, all 135 employees who worked there. He stopped at my office, only to say to me, “I don’t want to talk to you; I want to meet your staff.”

Another wasted drycleaning effort.

So off went the deputy minister to meet my small team of economists and support staff. “Hi, Nick Mulder. Call me Nick!” And Nick sat down in the cubicles of my team members, chatting them up, asking them what they did.

MBWAHow often do you see your organization’s top dog actually making a concrete effort to reach out and touch the regular folk who get the work down?

I worked in the public service of Canada for three decades before retiring at the end of 2010. I worked in five departments, covering both a regional office and headquarters. Nick Mulder was the ONLY top organizational leader in my experience who made a consistent effort to really meet staff–to reach out and touch them in a genuine way. This is the proverbial “walking the talk.”
Nick is a very bright guy who got things done. He worked in a variety of large departments. At the time, I worked for the big Department of Employment and Immigration, some 23,000 employees.

Top leaders need to periodically get off their high horse and connect with the people who get the work done in organizations, and it certainly helps to put on some running shoes to keep you more nimble. Connecting regularly with employees is especially important when one is leading a private or public organization that has a strong orientation to customers or clients.

There’s no better way for a top leader to get face-to-face with an employee who works in a remote local office serving unemployment insurance clients.

There’s no better way for a corporate CEO to talk to employees in a hardware store to find out what their challenges are in serving demanding customers in a competitive marketplace.

And there’s no better way for the president of a non-profit organization to speak to those staff who diligently canvas donors each and every day.

leadership conceptual compassIf you’re a senior manager and you’re not making a regular effort to connect to your hardworking employees, then you’re not just missing an opportunity to improve organizational performance but you’re also negligent as a leader. For leadership, at its core, is about creating a loyal followership through a shared vision. You can’t do that if you never face your people from time to time.

Take a moment to read Leadership and the Bottom Line to see a contrast between leadership that gets it and that which does not.

Leadership is NOT about mission statements that get mounted on boardroom walls or that are in corporate newsletters. It’s NOT about proclaiming “Employees are our most important asset.” And it’s NOT about stating that the organization has a new set of values and ethics.

This news isn’t just for the person at the organization’s apex, but also for those in the entire hierarchical pyramid.

Reflect on “Call me Nick” Mulder. Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and put on the running shoes?

The only test of leadership is that somebody follows. 
– Robert K. Greenleaf

holisti-leadershipClick here to download a complimentary copy of Jim’s e-book Becoming a Holistic Leader, 3rd Edition.

JIm PhotoVisit Jim’s e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.