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What Leaders Look Like – The Ampersand November 2020

November 1, 2020

Dear Friends and Colleagues,


Not sure about you, but I’ve recently been digesting Alberta’s Recovery Strategy, a bold blueprint to get us out of the glue. With the triple whammy of COVID-19, an economic downturn reminiscent of the 1930s and the collapse in energy prices, there’s not much that hasn’t been thrown at us. The report opens with a line from Alberta country star, Brett Kissel, that is apt for our times: “tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”


The strategy is audacious – and it needs to be. Its goals are to create tens of thousands of jobs by launching a massive $10 billion infrastructure program. The multiplier effect of these investments will stimulate work in those areas most vulnerable like small business, hotels and restaurants, goes the thinking.


This is a great start, but the question is Will it be enough, or will we need more than just ‘tough people’ to emerge from these tough times?


I ask this question because I was struck by a Harvard Business Review study on the future of leadership and how we are developing leaders. Here we are launching all of these ambitious initiatives, initiatives which, at the end the day, must be led by leaders, but the study basically said the way we are developing leaders is at least a generation behind from where we should be. That’s thirty years. Basically pre-Internet. You know what they say, you can’t bring a floppy disk to a gun fight. Or something like that.


According to the study, the leadership development industry is in a state of upheaval. Organizations are spending billions of dollars but are increasingly frustrated with the results. A full 50% of senior leaders indicated that talent development efforts didn’t adequately build critical skills or capabilities.


The challenge, according to Chief Learning Officers, is that most programs focus on strategy development and finance, while not paying enough attention to building strong relationships, communicating effectively or enhancing our emotional intelligence—in other words, the people part.


Working at a firm whose tagline is We Know People, one of the most rewarding parts of our job is working with, and for, so many great leaders. Ultimately, it is leaders who retain us, and it is leaders we seek out. Though we immerse ourselves in the language of leadership and we are trained to identify, assess, and advance leaders, most of our pedagogy is by osmosis; you spend enough time around leaders, and you get good at spotting them.


So, what does leadership look like? Let’s start with the Merriam Webster definition:


Okay, but not once have we been retained by a client to find them “a leader who has the capacity to lead.”


“Adam, we need your team to find us a CEO!”

“Great, what are you looking for?”


“A leader who has the capacity to lead.”


Leadership is much more than simply “the capacity to lead” or merely “holding the office or title of Leader.”  I can hold a baseball and have the title of Pitcher.  That doesn’t mean I can pitch.


The foregoing more accurately defines the floor, not the ceiling, and that is likely at the root of leadership’s current PR problem.  As we await this week’s ultimate leadership selection process — the US election — the ceiling has become the floor.  As Ezra Klein noted after mid-October’s duelling townhalls between Trump and Biden:


“This was, again and again, Biden’s point: The words of the president matter. The behavior of the president matters. The comportment of the president matters. The example of the president matters. Biden talks policy often and reasonably well, but he hasn’t been putting on a clinic in wonkery; he’s been putting on a clinic in decency. And it matters. It shouldn’t — decency should be table stakes, too unremarkable to mention — but right now, it does.”  Replace ‘president’ with the word ‘leader’ and you have another, better, starting point: decency.


Humanity would be another. If there’s one word resonating with leaders and organizations today, it’s humanity. With the rise of social enterprise, call for social justice, heartbreak that has arisen from the pandemic and economic challenges that have hit the world hard, the need for leaders to embrace the core virtues of decency and humanity has never been greater.


Because decency and humanity are foundational elements of leadership, when assessing true leaders, I for one am unable to separate the message from the messenger.  A leader of decency cannot espouse wholly indecent ideas.  Bad ones, okay.  Ones with which I disagree, fine.  But abhorrent, debasing, inciting ideas?  That’s when, quoting Merriam Webster, a leader no longer has the capacity to lead.


Spotting great leadership in today’s extraordinary environment is made all the more difficult. With utmost respect to those leaders who came before us, that cohort referenced in the Harvard Business Review of 30 years ago, who wax nostalgic as they show off their scars — the early 80s, the 18% interest rates, the NEP, the $12 oil, the uphill walk to school – both directions! — a veritable Greatest Hits 8-track overplayed on local radio these days — this is different and it requires a different type of leader.  “A mere flesh wound,” as the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail of 30 years ago might say, compared to the stresses placed on the leaders of tomorrow entrusted with leading us out of our current predicament.


Very few of us have been through a Pandemic and those who were around during the Spanish Flu of 1918 did not have to contend with the unyielding noise of the Internet, or traverse the information divide, the politicization of health directives and directors, sift through wild conspiracies and retweets of posted, then censored, YouTube videos.  Mind you, with over 500 million infections worldwide during the Spanish Flu, compared to 1/10th that amount so far this time around, it’s fair to say that being uninformed was considerably more fatal than being misinformed.


The question remains: in a world of misinformation where do we look for inspiration? What does great, aspirational, leadership actually look like? Decency and humanity will only take you so far.


No longer can we look where we once did when even the Leader of the Free World, as is often called the US Presidency, has – for now at least – forfeited its right to be the “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere” as Ronald Reagan once gushed.


On this side of the border, at the risk of speaking ill of my current joint venture partner, it must be said that Prime Minster Trudeau isn’t proving much of a beacon either. Scandal and obfuscation aren’t the hallmarks of leadership I seek (though I do appreciate the help with the rent!).


No, my definition of leadership isn’t partisan. It’s not about party or policy. It’s about personal integrity and basic civility. Leaders with decency compel people to follow, rather than coerce them to. I’ve always thought the best leaders know the outcome they’re trying to reach; the magic is in making others feel it was their idea.


So, where does that leave us? We’ve determined that looking to the senior most reaches of our current political landscape for leadership inspiration is futile.  If not up, then where must we look to find these elusive traits?


Seeing as 2020 is the year of everything going pear shaped, I propose that the entire notion of followers and leaders be turned on its head.  In many cases, it’s the followers who are leading.  Take this list – one of dozens like it that appear in your browser when you search “qualities of a leader” and apply them to the follower instead, as I’ve done here:

  1. Honesty and integrity – When no one’s watching you work from home.
  2. Confidence – To thrive in a new medium and environment.
  3. Inspire Others – By working doubly hard to prove to your leaders that you can be trusted to deliver and set the example for others to follow.
  4. Commitment and Passion – When the daily perks of the workplace – the lattes, the after-work drinks and the gym membership – are replaced by stripped down essentials of simply doing your job.
  5. Good Communicator – Through the screen of your laptop to convey your point.
  6. Decision Making Capabilities – Absent the ability to pop into the neighbouring office or a chance encounter in the kitchen.
  7. Accountability – To deliver without anyone looking over your shoulder.
  8. Delegation and Empowerment – In a remote and isolated environment where traditional hierarchical dynamics shift and change.
  9. Creativity and Innovation – In a static and paralyzed world.
  10. Empathy – For allowing everyone to feel the way they feel on any given day.
  11. Resilience – Like, duh.
  12. Emotional Intelligence – To ‘read the room’ when you’re not in a room.
  13. Humility – To quietly accept the fear and uncertainty of the path ahead.
  14. Transparency – To openly accept the fear and uncertainty of the path ahead.
  15. Vision and Purpose – Without which you may as well just pack it in.

My point is this:  perhaps we should stop looking up for inspiration and look around instead. Each individual taking care of themselves and their neighbours. Instead of leading by decree, we lead by example. With decency and humanity. And isn’t that at the very core of our prairie ethos?


After all, we’re seeing amazing local, grassroots leadership right here in Alberta. The latest being to trial a pilot project that will relax the quarantine requirements of international travellers entering Canada using rapid COVID-19 testing at airports and border crossings. From expanded fibre optic infrastructure and 5G tower capabilities from Canmore to Cold Lake; companies like Absorb Software, an award-winning, cloud-based learning management system for businesses; and ATTAbotics, a TIME Magazine Best Inventions of 2019 company that’s reinventing the supply chain; or Kudos, leveraging the power of employee recognition and feedback to help organizations reduce turnover, improve culture and boost performance.  It’s the ideas of Alberta that are 30 years out-dated, not the ideas in Alberta.


Which brings us back to Alberta’s Recovery Strategy.  Though it’s a bit early to crow about our handling of the crisis as though it is behind us, I agree with this statement from the Report in describing Alberta’s relative success thus far, as I think it succinctly captures the essence of leadership I’ve been struggling to define:


That is a testament to the culture of personal responsibility and care for others that is hard wired into this province. It is also due to our culture of enterprise, from the brilliant public servants who started stockpiling medical supplies before the world was aware of a pandemic; to our laboratory scientists who planned ahead to deliver the highest per capita level of testing in the world; to the charities and businesses who found innovative ways of helping the vulnerable; to the countless random acts of kindness shown to neighbours and strangers alike.”


Far be it from me to disagree with the big brains at Harvard but I’m not convinced today’s leaders truly are 30 years behind.  The ones in Alberta certainly aren’t. I just think great leadership is harder to spot amidst the dense fog of the day. But fog lifts and when it does, a new type of leader will emerge. One where decency and humanity are too unremarkable to mention.


At Pekarsky & Co., we are working hard to envision that leader and to create a made-in-Alberta response to leadership’s future needs. We’ve already started a series of conversations about what’s going well – and not so well – as we contemplate new ways to identify and support those leaders.


When we are retained by leaders to find and support leaders, we usually get it right. Let’s hope our friends to the south do, too.