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Shawn Singh and the President’s Student Leadership Program

A law student’s summer adventure in experiential learning

September 10, 2021 — 

This summer was unusual for 3L Shawn Singh. For one thing, he worked as a research assistant for Assistant Professor Brandon Trask, published three peer-reviewed articles including two in the Manitoba Law Journal, and one in a book published by Springer Nature. He got married – that was huge. Oh yes, and he was the only law student to be selected to take part in the University of Manitoba President’s Student Leadership Summer Program.

photo of law student Shawn Singh

Law student Shawn Singh.

Singh returns to class this fall as Robson Hall’s Thomson Reuters Representative and is an active member of the local student chapter of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (C.A.R.L.). In the midst of his busy schedule, Singh graciously took time out to report in to Law Communications about the incredible experience that was the President’s Student Leadership Summer Program in the hopes of encouraging other law students to try for it next year.

The President’s Student Leadership Program is the flagship program of the James W. Burns Leadership Institute, which is run under the auspices of the Asper School of Business. Students from almost all other UM Faculties and departments ranging from undergraduate to master’s to doctorate degree levels took part. Participants hail from outside UM as well, including University College of the North, Red River College, and the University of Winnipeg. Singh’s Summer Project Team alone was comprised of UM students from Agriculture, Astrophysics, Logistics and Supply Chain Management and Civil Engineering.  And him, the law student.

How might taking this program help you in your legal career?

The President Student Leadership Program was an exceptional opportunity to learn from Manitoban leaders in business, government, and social service about their journey into leadership. They spoke to our cohort about their inspirations, their challenges and how they overcame them to create lasting change in communities, both in Manitoba and across Canada.

A common theme amongst our speakers was the importance of building trust as a leader. Whether that sense of trust is built within our teams, with stakeholders or with members of the community, each emphasized trust as a fundamental principle of good leadership. Each speaker concluded that trusting relationships could only be achieved with active listening, vulnerability, delivering on expectations, and being accountable to everyone involved.

Perhaps, the most important way that our speakers were able to build trust was by maintaining two-way avenues of communication with all involved parties.

As an aspiring professional, I know that these lessons will serve me well – lawyers in Manitoba are expected to uphold the standards and reputation of the profession, while executing its practice with integrity.

Section 2.1-1 of the Professional Code of Conduct tells us that a lawyer’s integrity is grounded in relationships of trust with clients, with other professionals and with the public, in the context of their confidence in the administration of justice. Said differently, society expects that practicing lawyers will be trustworthy in all of their conduct and in each of their relationships.

The PSLP gave me several new tools that will undoubtedly support my work over the coming years – whether that is driving change at Robson Hall, volunteering with community organizations, or working as an articling student.

Did you learn anything you would never have otherwise discovered?

While discussing trust as a concept is meaningful, our group created real-time results that highlighted a significantly stronger outcome because we were forced to trust other team members completely. In an Improv session with Rob Nickerson, our group told a story where each contribution depended on the response of the previous person. By changing the rules in different iterations of the story, the audience could see the effects of over-thinking, taking too much responsibility or relying too heavily on others. In our most synchronized story, we were instructed to have complete faith that the precedent contribution would fit the story criteria and rules; the story would also not be stopped if anyone made a mistake. Many of us were nervous before starting, but we quickly found our rhythm and rattled off a thrilling story about an axe-murderer in a BC valley town.

Although it was exhilarating to successfully construct a story on the fly, these activities highlighted the value of having trust in our teammates and delivering on the trust they placed with each of us. By removing the mental burden of doubt, we achieved our best results and did so in half the time!

At a broader level, this activity helped me see the real value of fully believing that my team will deliver for me, so I can focus my full attention on delivering for them. While it may be somewhat simple, I may never have learned this lesson because it may have been too subtle to notice – I may never have taken the time to quantify the difference in terms of performance and efficiency that trust can make.

What was the most memorable lesson you took away from this program?

My most memorable PSLP experience was applying some lessons that Robson Hall students get in Legal Negotiations to craft our Summer Project plan – using banter to find spaces of commonality that can be built on to reach agreement on a way forward.

After the core week of PSLP workshops and presentations, groups were formed so participants could apply the program’s lessons in a Summer Leadership Project. The purpose of this project was to work with an existing social organization to help them work towards addressing a social issue within their mandate.

My team came from a diverse set of educational backgrounds – engineering, astrophysics, logistics and supply chain management, agriculture and law. It was challenging at first to find a common set of priorities that we could all contribute to with confidence. Before diving into our group projects, we learned (and I revisited) the fundamentals of negotiation from Professor Lukas Neville from the Asper School of Business.

As we learned in Legal Negotiations, casual discussion can help the group find areas of commonality or have ideas that can bring the collective towards consensus.

Even though we all brought different knowledge and priorities to the table, we found that talking about our interests and the organizations that we work with brought out details that wouldn’t have come up otherwise.

Conversation led us to find a common interest in the impending drought conditions that were forecast for Manitoba this summer. Considering this issue, we continued to discuss avenues that could make a difference in terms of water conservation, as well as longer term action that could help combat climate change.

Continued deliberation led us to reach consensus on working with a local ecological conservation organization to raise awareness about environmental preservation, with particular focus on watershed management. Many of us noted our surprise when we reached agreement on our project priorities so quickly and recognized that Professor Neville’s process helped us use our time together more efficiently and effectively.

After reaching consensus on our project priorities, we partnered with Ducks Unlimited Canada and Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives to raise awareness about grassland conservation as a longer-term solution to mitigate the effects of climate change, enhance biodiversity and improve watershed integrity in Manitoba and across the prairies.

Our workshop was a success! Over 60 students registered for a professional panel-presentation from four key stakeholders in Manitoba’s environmental protection sector to raise awareness about grassland conservation and the important role of grazer species in fostering climate resilience overall.

Negotiations played a critical role in every decision made by our team and I will always remember the surprise we felt as a group when we discovered that Professor Neville was right. 

As the only law student in this program, what did you find you most brought to the table with your educational background?

When speaking with presenters or debriefing with our cohort, I regularly raised questions about the policy limits that could empower or constrain the initiatives discussed by each presenter. We learned a lot about creating lasting organizational change, both internally and with others. Many of our speakers work with institutions that are constrained by unique business, labour or governmental considerations, such as international corporations, hospitals and provincial social service providers.

For example, I asked Mr. Paul Soubry questions about his approach to international trade relations in the aftermath of NAFTA’s renegotiation and changes in trade with the European Union. He spoke with passion about having the right people on your team to navigate critical systems like international policy. Without the experienced support of one of his executive teammates, Mr. Soubry is certain that New Flyer Industries could not have taken their place as leader of the zero-emission public mobility revolution, both in Canada and around the world.

As a PSLP participant, I made sure that important questions about policy and its relationship with organizational operations were raised as frequently as possible – often resulting in a positive dialogue amongst the group.

What – if anything – did you learn from your colleagues or from this program that you’d never encountered before?

One PLSP practice that I hadn’t encountered before was our session on practicing mindfulness. I’ve encountered mindfulness practice in the context of spiritualism and wellness, but I didn’t think about its connection to productivity, both personally and with others.

Professor Jieying Chen accompanied our group as we undertook a guided mindfulness exercise, where we looked inward and shared our experience with others. Even though I’ve engaged in mindfulness practices on my own in the past, I have not done so in a social sense or discussed its outcomes with others.

Professor Chen posed several questions to our group –  I was astounded at the variety of responses and the connections my teammates made between PSLP content, contemporary social issues and action that could be taken using these tools to create long-standing change.

Since engaging with mindfulness in this way, I’ve made these practices a part of my regular routine and am constantly surprised by the new pathways that reveal themselves to me in terms of my work.

Will this project be implemented in real-life beyond being an educational exercise?

Our Summer Leadership Project was conducted in partnership with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUCs), who’s vision is to achieve clean water and healthy wetlands for all waterfowl, wildlife and people through strategic efforts to conserve, restore and manage wetlands and associated habitats.

While our project was focused to conservation of grasslands and the important role of grazing species towards these objectives, DUCs supported our work because of the crucial need to conserve grassland ecosystems due to the benefits that healthy grasslands have in terms of watershed integrity, biodiversity conservation, and climate resilience in the prairies. Our largest population of active grazers are beef cattle. With this in mind, Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives (MBFI) joined our project as a perennial partner of DUCs and a key player in grassland conservation.

As a law student, it was intriguing to me to learn about the nuanced relationships that operate between agricultural enterprises, the delivery of goods and services, environmental sustainability objectives and law, which come together to construct our collective relationship with the lands that we call home.

Working in partnership with DUCs and MBFI, we developed a four-module workshop for students that raises awareness about grassland ecosystems and their relationship to broader ecosystems. Thanks to the support of student group administrators and faculty staff, we successfully held this workshop on August 16th at maximum capacity – our notes show that students learned a lot about grasslands, their importance in Manitoba and action they can take to help prevent their complete annihilation.

A key objective of partnering with PSLP projects is for each group to provide a deliverable workshop or presentation that can be used to continue the impact achieved with the summer project. DUCs and MBFI now have the ability to use the deliverables from this project to hold ongoing educational sessions with students at the secondary and post-secondary levels, and with the public.

While the details are not yet confirmed, they are hoping to hold another rendition of this workshop before the end of 2021. Either way, our team is thrilled that this workshop will contribute to lasting change in Manitoba, both in the short term and into the distant future.

The President’s Student Leadership Program was an exceptional opportunity to learn from Manitoban leaders in business, government, and social service about their journey into leadership. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the PSLP and look forward to using these tools as my time comes to a close at Robson Hall and I enter the practice of law in Manitoba. 

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