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From the President
Photo by Thomas Fricke

Leadership Lessons

At the University of Manitoba, we believe leadership can—and even should—be learned.

That’s why we take such pride in the amazing Distinguished Alumni Award winners highlighted in this issue; we know—because they’ve told us—that their leadership qualities were nurtured right here at the University of Manitoba.

A belief that leadership can be taught and learned also underpins this institution’s upcoming launch of a unique new Institute for Leadership Development, with the generous assistance of Great-West Life, Investors Group and Power Corporation, which will bring together resources to enable all students, no matter what their program of study, to hone their leadership skills. I’m particularly excited about the President’s Student Leadership Program, where students from the University of Manitoba and other post-secondary institutions across the province will have the opportunity to engage with internationally renowned leaders in business, politics, sport, public service, education, health, law and the arts.

When we acknowledge that leadership isn’t something we’re born with, or win, but rather something we grow into, and earn, we allow for a deepening of our understanding of what leadership can be: No matter how long you may have been a leader, you’re always learning something new.

I know that I continue every day to expand my understanding of leadership, and— interestingly—a great deal of what I have come to realize about motivating others and setting direction can be rather humbling.

Recently I was asked to speak to a group of senior university administrators about my personal reflections on leadership. Ultimately I amassed a list of 26 “leadership lessons learned on the job” that I shared with them. These are the hard-knock truths that I usually learned by doing it the other (wrong) way the first time around.

  1. All true leadership involves constantly replenishing and spending political capital—the power to persuade—and only infrequently playing the trump card of authority.
  2. Leaders are not in the first instance individual contributors to the primary missions but are enablers of others.
  3. Tell the truth. In particular, differentiate consulting from informing.
  4. Say “Thank you” as often as you can and “I’m sorry” as often as is appropriate.
  5. Leadership roles involve contact with interesting people and contexts, but these must be byproducts not ego-satisfying ends in themselves.
  1. Share values and trust in a team, or change the players. People are often hired primarily or only for qualifications, but we must be able to do better than that. However, if they are fired it is because of fit and personality. If they quit it is often because they are leaving their leaders not their organizations.
  2. Strive for solidarity within the leadership team. Avoid turf protection. Foster mutual support and engagement. When one speaks let all be bound to the position taken.
  3. By the time you recognize the drag on a team’s progress caused by someone not fitting, it is always larger than you know so address it through personal involvement, and potentially eventually by removing someone who will not conform to the team ethos.
  4. Maintaining a high-performance team requires constant vigilance. Spend time lubricating the mechanism. Hold team members accountable for results and for how the team operates.
  5. Recruiting excellent people leverages your work and makes it last. Hire only excellent people. Assess excellence of fit and of past achievements.
  6. Be explicit with direct reports that you expect a lot, and in return commit to providing what they need to be personally successful, whatever that may be.
  7. Progress requires change; change requires decisions. One person can only make a small number of decisions, so delegate and hold decision-makers accountable. Delegate rather than routinely approving. Ensure that those to whom you delegate authority will use appropriate consultation processes.
  8. Make the best decisions possible with the information and experience you have. Do not focus on past mistakes because this leads to a downward spiral. Focus on future opportunities because this leads to an upward spiral.
  9. Office geography or topography matters as it can promote or inhibit effective functioning. Alas, we often have leadership teams in older less flexible buildings, and politically it is not wise to spend money on this.
  10. It is critical to do regular formal performance reviews of team members, interspersed with much informal feedback.
  11. Focus on doing what only the person in the position you are in can do. Do not do the work of those who report to you, even if you can do it better than they can. Hold them accountable for doing it.
  12. Allow and affirm results that you would not have produced yourself. Recognize that most problems do not have a single optimal solution. Even if an optimal solution is available, a “good enough” solution is generally acceptable and even best in terms of return on resources and time invested to find it and to implement it.
  13. In high performing teams, ideas flow from each specialized division of the organization to the executive rather than always from the centre to the periphery.
  1. Tools allow both amateurs and experts to do better work; so with the tools of management.
  2. Organizational structure is a tool. People get things done; structure can get in the way. Structure is necessary but not sufficient.
  3. Process is a tool. Formal processes should encapsulate best practice or at least agreed practice. Results matter. Process is necessary but not sufficient.
  4. Experts do not let their tools limit them. Accordingly, good leaders do not let process or structure limit them, but step aside from these things only very selectively.
  1. Inter-organizational relationships build on personal relationships of trust.
  2. Partnerships work when partners are committed to each other’s success rather than lobbying for their individual interests.
  1. Leadership is in relatively short supply but we can teach and mentor, so that we have more.
  2. Create circumstances in which the one who follows you will have success beyond your own.

That last one reminds us that as leaders, we are stewards: We should endeavour to leave our organizations—and our communities, and ultimately our world—in better shape than we found them.

2 comments on “Leadership Lessons

  1. Brendan Hughes

    Dear David,
    Thanks for the master class in leadership with your reflections and sharing of your thoughts on the subject. While they are all solid, #15 & #16 ring true to me.

    Very pleased to hear about the leadership institute and the President’s Student Leadership Program. I’m so proud of all that the U of M has done in this space: the Emerging Leaders Dinner, the President’s Scholars Program and other activities.

    Keep up the good work! Leadership can be taught, learned, and applied…and like you said, good leaders are always learning how to be better.

    Brendan Hughes
    Former Executive Director, Student Engagement

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