Queen's University IRC

Follow These Leaders

An Interview with Françoise Morissette and Amal Henein
Interviewed by Queen’s IRC

April 1, 2005

As part of their research on leadership development, Queen’s IRC Facilitator Françoise Morissette (FM) and fellow consultant Amal Henein (AH) have interviewed 200 leaders from across Canada: executives, entrepreneurs, politicians, civil servants, fundraisers, activists, artists, journalists, athletes, coaches. While their book, Leadership Development, Maple Leaf Style, is slated for publication in 2006, they gave us an early view of some findings to date.

Your research focuses on what leaders do as opposed to who leaders are: you judge the outcome rather than a set of character traits.

AH: Getting results is of prime importance: that is the ultimate measure of leadership. If leaders don’t accomplish what they set out to do, people will not follow them for long. You can have leadership charisma galore, but if you don’t have followers you’re not a leader. Sometimes leaders get caught up in chasing a vision and when they look around, they need binoculars to see their followers because they have lost touch.

What are some of your findings?

FM: One of the most interesting finding is that only one-third of interviewees feel they were “born to lead” and have an innate interest or ability in leadership. By contrast, two-thirds claim that leadership was” thrust upon them”. Typically, they say, “I never wanted or set out to be a leader. I had to take on a leadership role because nobody else would do it,” or “I deeply believed in a cause,” or “I really wanted to help.”

This breakdown has profound implications on how we view leadership and its development. It certainly flies in the face of the old adage that “leaders are born, not made.” Instead of focusing on how to identify “born” leaders – which is easy enough to do – the question becomes: how do we create conditions so that more people will take on leadership roles? If the majority of people do not initially see themselves as leaders, then development is key: “Nurture” primes over “Nature”.

AH: Moreover, even the innate leaders stress the importance of development, which enables them to grow in skill and confidence and enhances their ability to adapt to a variety of situations. Both the “accidental” and the “born” leaders agree that leadership development is essentially an organic process. Although a certain amount of planning and goal setting exists, being alert to opportunities and seizing them is paramount because stretching out of one’s comfort zone promotes growth like nothing else.

At what point in their lives did your leaders actually see themselves that way? Did some leaders self-identify as young people?

FM: The innate leaders experience it a very young age. The accidental leaders are surprised when the call comes. They have to reach out and significantly alter their self-concept in order to lead.

AH: Both types agree, however, that influences encountered at a young age from role models are extremely significant. Also significant are the filters through which leadership is first learned: sports, arts, school, community, family. For instance, those who experience leadership through sports, share a similar mindset: teamwork, discipline, fair competition, working things out, striving for excellence. Those who encounter it through community work also share a similar mindset: values, ideals, service, compassion, a quest for justice.

Among the many leaders you interviewed, are there common themes regarding how leaders are developed? Specifically how important is formal leadership training versus informal mentorship or instinctive reaction to what life throws at you?

FM: Interviewees consistently reinforce what we call “the triangle of development”: people, environment, and experience. With regards to “people”, interviewees speak in glowing, affectionate, and grateful terms about their mentors. Most can recall with great precision a teacher in public school who helped them 30 years ago. Mentors continue to influence their protégés long after they have disappeared from their lives. We have concluded that proper mentoring is the greatest gift to developing leaders and a very potent enabler. We haven’t found anything that comes close to the strong and positive emotions generated by effective mentoring.

AH: Secondly, leaders stress the importance of challenging experiences for they are the crucible through which development occurs. Interviewees emphasize the benefits of a proactive approach and the need to seek out developmental opportunities. For instance, a CEO mentioned that he started raising cattle as a hobby because he didn’t know anything about it and it certainly would push his boundaries. Assessing risk is also central. Respondents’ wisdom is: as much risk as you can bear. The more startling and challenging, the better!

FM: Thirdly, interviewees speak highly of the value of “supportive” environments. These are places where leadership is valued, conscious efforts are made to build leaders, and opportunities abound. Several types of environments are conducive: Pioneering, such as entrepreneurial or fast growth where there is room to manoeuvre; artistic, where one can exercise creativity and create meaning, and at risk or challenging, where there is a lot of pressure. What doesn’t work are narrow, stifling environments where the human spirit is crushed.

Can you offer examples of Canadian organizations that do “leadership development” well? What makes them effective?

AH: Successful programs share common characteristics. They generally include application/practice components, the more relevant to day-to-day life the better. For instance, a West coast organization asks leadership program graduates to solve real business problems. Their solutions are then reviewed by executives and many are adopted. They include “awareness building” components such as psychometric assessments or 360-degree feedback tools. They constantly analyze the needs of their constituents to meet organization’s goals and fit corporate culture. And they cater to the needs of leaders at different levels (supervisors, managers, and executives).

FM: There are a few other characteristics of strong leadership development programmes. They are backed up by leadership development infrastructures such as forums where leaders can exchange, mentorship programs, apprenticeships, special projects. They involve senior leaders as program presenters or facilitators and as mentors to graduates. They explicitly teach organizational values and leadership perspective. They identify and support high potentials instead of trying to “fix” poor performers. And they measure leadership effectiveness.

You make a great effort to put a Canadian stamp on your research. Are there in fact certain leadership styles that can be considered Canadian and are there differences across the country?

AH: For the most part, interviewees think there is a distinct Canadian style. Many respondents contrast the Canadian and American leadership styles. They say Canadian leaders are less aggressive, more socially minded, and less driven by the bottom line.

FM: Other respondents describe the Canadian leadership style on its own merits. They use terms such as: steady, reliable, fair, professional, tolerant, service oriented, and focused on harmony. It’s an understated, collaborative style and it delivers the goods. It is prized on the international scene where a disproportionate number of Canadians lead world-wide organizations.

AH: Here’s an example. A Canadian leader abroad told senior executives that he would close their special dining room and that they would eat in the staff cafeteria. This simple gesture was a powerful symbol of the direction he envisioned for the new corporate culture.

FM: In our country, role models are not necessarily known outside of their field of endeavour or region. People are looking for national role models, particularly women and minorities of every kind. Many good things are happening in leadership development, but Canadians are not necessarily aware of them. As a nation, we can all benefit from each other’s experience in this field. Respondents feel that the inception of national institutions to foster research, sharing, and education would be extremely useful. We hope our research will inspire individuals, organizations, and all levels of government to take steps to enhance our Canadian leadership “bench strength.”

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