Adventures in Leadership and Learning

Community Based Leadership

They came to feel safe.

They came to give their children a better future.

They came to avoid political, religious and cultural persecution

They came because the risks of staying were far greater that the risks of the journey.

Who are “they”?

If you are Canadian, “they” are each and every one of us.

The Syrian Refugee you see on TV is the small town industrial worker from Europe who came to Canada in the first half of the last century.

The Syrian Refugee you see on your Facebook feed is the Acadian farmer who settled in the Maritimes in the 1700’s.

The Syrian Refugee you see on Twitter is the eastern European pioneer that built western Canada from the dirt up.

The Syrian Refugee you see on TV is the African Canadian who made it to Canada via the Underground Railroad escaping slavery in the United States.

The Syrian Refugee you see on your newsfeed is the Scottish and Irish settler who carved a life out of the woods on the Atlantic coast in the 1800’s.

Our immigration policies have never been perfect and have often reflected the flawed leadership thinking “of that time”. Head taxes, continuous voyage policies and work camp internments are part of our history that we have had to wrestle with but, hopefully, we have learned from.

Many of our First Nations hosts in Canada hold that their oral histories indicate that the genesis of their peoples originated in North America. Genetic studies indicate that some of their histories may have included migration from Eastern Asia or western Eurasia thousands of years ago. What our aboriginal neighbors have in common with all of these other groups who came here, is their understanding of importance of community. Specifically, community based leadership.

Communities cannot be bought or traded for; they can only be built from within. Canada is a country of communities. The people who live there, whether they are neighborhoods in large cities, small prairie hamlets, coastal villages, or small lake towns, built these communities because they needed to.

There were no groups or outside agencies that came in to design, decide and construct these communities for the people in them. It was the leadership of the people in them who decided that they wanted a place to work and live and play that would provide a place for them and their children to connect, communicate, collaborate and care for each other.

This most recent group of new Canadians, just like the ones from the last few centuries, will come and they will benefit greatly. They will also add, build and contribute just like your ancestors did. Just like my ancestors did.

There are many parts of our collective Canadian identity that will get passed on to individuals and groups as they transition here. The sense of ownership and ability to contribute directly to the communities in which they live are among the most valuable. We are really a country of communities with a very strong sense of place that enables us to be comfortably different.

Many have said it; we are the ones we have been waiting for. What role will you play?


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The political landscape in Canada has shifted significantly over the past few months. Are we now drinking the water from a different cup, but from the same well? What role has leadership played in this shift and how is this transition different than previous ones?

 Politically, there is likely very little difference as an established mainstream party moves out, and another established mainstream party moves in. When the political aspects of this transition are stripped away and you examine the leadership components, you begin to see why this shift may be of more significance.

Justin Trudeau has created a leadership pathway of hope and expectation that he will need to work very hard to live up to. Time will tell if he possesses the leadership skills to execute the vision he has laid out in front of Canadians. I believe it is in the examination, the very “apolitical” examination, of Steven Harper’s leadership that that the significant shift starts to emerge.

Kouzes and Posner describe several aspects of the impact of leadership in context and on the people around them in their book, Credibility (Jossey-Bass, 1993). One of the concepts they discussed was the notion of a knowledge-based organization and society, where people work and add value with their head and not with their hands. People within these organizations will resist being controlled or treated as inferiors. Prior to the last election, many sitting MPs chose not to run for re-election. Included in this group were high profile cabinet members Peter MacKay, John Baird, James Moore and Christian Paradis. Did they see the writing on the wall or were their contributions being consistently undervalued?

During election periods, our neighbors to the south spend much of their time examining common characteristics among some of their most popular past presidents. Despite the different eras, were there some common characteristics shared between leaders like Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy? Among some others, like a high degree of respect for education, a characteristic that shows up frequently is a high value these leaders placed on discourse and dissent within their inner circles. Without the questions, inputs and filters that can be generated by a talented inner group, the leadership process will most likely become a significantly insular activity. The complex process of successfully leading a company, organization, or even a country requires a perspective beyond a single person regardless of who they are.

A second strong indicator that the beginning of the end for Mr. Harper may have originated from within and not from any external political base is the questions arising from his office’s handling of the Senate issues. How complicit or knowledgeable Mr. Harper was about decisions that were made may never be fully understood. The first possibility is that you have people that report directly to you making decisions that they should not be making or that you are unaware of. The second, and likely worse, possibility is that you have people who report directly to you who are hiding their decisions and actions from you. The plausible deniability aspect of both of these scenarios may help you legally but will not save you in the leadership realm.

Like many successful politicians before him, his father included, Justin Trudeau was elected on the promises and optimism associated with change. The political framework and structures (“the what”) that he has inherited are the same ones left behind by his predecessor. His greatest chance for his success may lie in “the how” he conducts himself as a leader. Whether it is with the media, his caucus, or his office, Justin Trudeau’s external political success may very well depend on the apolitical leadership skills he applies from within.

Leading the New Followers

Our digital world is filled and re-filled continuously with ideas around what effective leaders should do, should never do, or should be. Whatever leadership style, philosophy or approach you aspire to, the one non-negotiable requirement is that in order to be a leader, you must generate followers. The characteristics of today’s followers are shifting significantly. Are your leadership skills ready?


The Boomers are moving on to re-invent whatever form of retirement that they see fit. The organizational structures that they are leaving behind are very similar to the ones that they worked in for years. However, the followers who will be residing within those structures are different in almost every way.


Robert Kelley’s extensive work on followership indicated that that there were several qualities that effective followers possessed. They included self-management, commitment, competence and courage. Now, if all of our followers possessed these attributes all of the time, we would spend much less time looking at the dynamics of effective leaders because they would be much less needed. However, Kelley also looked at how people behave in the work place and generated five types or patterns of followers. They include the sheep, the yes people, the pragmatics, the alienated and the star followers. The leadership skills and techniques that made you effective with the Boomers and Gen X followers will require some significant tweaking when you start working with Millenials and 21st Century Learners.


Attending a conference a few years ago, I was listening to a former university professor and psychologist speak about the theme of entitlement that ran through the young people and families that she works with. She said they all want to work less than their parents did and have a healthier, more balanced life style. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they also, however, wanted to be CEO by Friday. The leadership challenge within this thinking is how do you lead individuals and groups with such conflicting view of sacrifice and deferred gratification. You engage them!


Authors and researchers Neil Howe and Richard Strauss looked at the generational aspects of this age group and how they compare to their peers from different eras. In their book Millenials Rising, they indicate that individuals from this generation tend to be optimistic, cooperative team players, rule followers and respectful of authority. This seems like a rather optimistic outlook and somewhat counter to the self-absorbed, instant gratification themes we have been hearing and reading about. Howe and Strauss go on to say the … “ Millenial kids are challenging a long list of what ‘postmodern’ young people are supposed to become.”


Educational leaders are seeing a similar shift in their school environments as a generation of 21st Century leaners moves through and out into the work force. This group, who has had access to mobile technology since they were born, is redefining what a learner is. As these students move through our transforming school systems, they are becoming problem solvers, collaborators and constructors of their own learning. The “what” of today’s schooling is still determined by the educational jurisdiction, but the “how” is largely being decided and designed by the digital natives found within our classrooms. They are very comfortable finding their own path through a topic or problem and demonstrating their understanding in multiple ways.


How do leaders engage these new groups of employees that are significantly more adaptable, connected and mobile than any group that they have seen in the past? How can they create work environments that maintain high levels of growth, productivity and profitability?


Lateral Capacity Building

Exposing employees, particularly when they are young, to a variety of tasks and departments within an organization is not a new concept. It is a proven means of deepening someone’s skill set and level of understanding of the scope of how your business or organization runs. Your new followers are very adaptable and aware of how they learn best. They are more interested and less intimidating when faced with new things and new environments. Will they love it all? Absolutely not! They will likely share with you what they do and do not like and maybe even ways you could improve certain areas. If you have a new follower that starts to generate ideas about how to improve something they do not like, you know you are on the right track.


Clarified Objectives

Your new followers are multi-taskers and they are good at it. They can work effectively on several things simultaneously. Whether it is a specific project, or part of their daily work, be sure they have a good understanding of what their objectives or deliverables are.


With lots of competing interests and focuses, the end product of their work could get lost in the shuffle. Having clearly communicated priorities that your followers can access as they navigate and problem-solve through their daily work and projects will assist greatly in keeping their eyes on the prize. The ultimate goal is for them to self manage, so be sure they have the tools.


Collaborative Environments

Striking a balance between collaboration and personal responsibility can be challenging. Your working environments do not have to consist of teams one hundred percent of the time. However, the level of connectivity between your new followers is already quite high, why not utilize it. Twenty first century learners are used to working and creating in collaborative environments. Creating solutions or generating ideas is something that they will likely do better in a small group than in isolation. Play to their strengths. Within your organizational structure, build in the means and the motivation to work together. Remember, however, constant collaboration is not for everyone. Within your group of new followers, you will have some introverts. In order to maximize their potential, you will need be sure they have time, quieter spaces and opportunities to contribute on an individual level. Susan Cain’s book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, (@susancain) will give you lots of insight and strategies on how to lead a quiet revolution. It is not about building the capacity of all of your employees, it is about building the capacity of each of your employees.



As your employees will acquire and apply many new skill sets during their time with you, as their leader, so must you. The work environments that they will create over the next twenty years will feel significantly different than the ones that you lived and learned in when you were getting started. What is your level of connectivity? What are your preferred methods of communication? How are your social media skills? This does not mean learning about the latest technology, app, or online tool. It does mean knowing how you learn best, knowing how to choose and filter through massive amounts of content, knowing what new innovations will be of best use to you, and recognizing and utilizing leverage points for your leadership skills and your organization. Many of your new followers will arrive with these skills already in place.


The changing demographics of the workplace will impact many aspects of your leadership practice, with the exception of one: the importance of relationships. Regardless of who your followers are, relationships are the means by which your leadership skills, good or bad, are delivered. The new followers will make you reflect on how these relationships are built and maintained. Understanding your leadership context is vital. Like a good writer, or an actor on the stage, you must know your audience. As an organizational leader, your audience is changing. Are you ready?


Mike MacDonald

Cochrane, Alberta

The Back Half of Leading Creativity

You have crafted a workplace environment that is rife with creative people developing fabulous ideas that will change the world. As the shelf life for the next “best thing” or the newest “best way” seems to get shorter, the opportunities presented to your organization can become increasingly fleeting. Do you have the leadership skills, the organizational structures, and the right people to move these fabulous ideas from inception to execution before they start collecting dust?

On the bumpy pathway from creative development to execution, there are many opportunities for distraction, wrong turns and detours. In order to develop that breakthrough that came from your divergent thinkers, you will need to have different skill sets in place for the next step. Convergent thinkers or teams are those that can sift between the different possibilities that have been developed and focus on the one that is most likely to be successful. Not only do they need a good understanding of the idea or concept as a stand alone, but they also need to understand how it can potentially fit into the broader context of the organization.

The Navigators

You need people who can choose the right fork in the road and make decisions on the fly. They also need to know the routes; the potential obstacles and have the ability to stay focused on the final destination.

The Fixers

You need people who can, not only see the speed bumps coming, but also can clear them out of the way or figure out ways around them. You need someone who can do the wet work.

The Closers

You need people who are persistent and have a clear understanding of not only what you are trying to accomplish, but also why it is important.


In their book, Strengths Based Leadership Tom Rath and Barrie Conchie examined the importance of diversity in the construction of teams. Although the each member of a team need not be diverse in experience or skill set, the team as a collective should be. An understanding of synthesis is essential in order to successful move that idea from concept to innovation. What are the potential short and long-term implications for finance, human resources, branding, and communications if we are to move forward? Once the project has taken legs, are there mechanisms in place such as formative assessment practices or variance reports that can check multiple forms of progress along the way? There is likely not one person within your organization that can answer all of these questions. However, a well-constructed execution team will insure that the creative momentum that was developed earlier will not be lost by someone choosing the wrong fork.


Finally, the assessment aspect of these projects is crucial. They can often grow legs of their own and consume everything in their path if left unchecked. In his book Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull (@edcatmull) from Pixar talked about his colleague Andrew Stanton and how he used to say, “be wrong as fast as you can”. Chasing false leads can direct resources in directions that ultimately prove costly but unproductive. If the project is demanding high levels of resources, it should also demand equally high levels of attention to ensure it ultimately proves worthwhile.

Failure is Bad – The Front Half of Leading Creativity


What level of risk will you tolerate to ensure creativity and innovation in your organization? Do you know? Do your employees know? How are your leadership activities influencing those levels of risk and creativity?


The message of “all failure is bad” is one that we are familiar with from both our school and work experiences. Organizations with this direct or indirect message as part of their work culture will struggle to challenge issues, problem solve and respond to changes in their business communities.


Ken Robinson (@sirkenrobinson) defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.” One of the first steps includes having the ability to spot the divergent thinkers within your organization. We all have people on our teams who respond to challenges by thinking of more than one possible solution, pathway or strategy. The ability of an organization to remain agile and responsive can depend on its leader’s ability to find and support those divergent thinkers within.


As a leader, you need to look for people within your organization who:


  • Enjoy discussions around big picture ideas or concepts.


  • Spend more time in meetings asking questions than sharing opinions.


  • Gravitate towards and excel at assignments and tasks that are open-ended.


Once you have the people in place and have identified them, you need a workplace environment that will support and foster this type of work. In Sparking Student Creativity, Patti Drapeau (@ptdrapeau) talked about aspects of the work or learning environment that maximize opportunities for people to be creative. These included establishing a work environment that values different types of creativity, values teamwork, and that is an emotionally safe and caring environment. This last one is likely the most crucial. In the educational context we have seen that teachers need to feel safe in order to take risks and explore new instructional territory. The most effective way to foster this bravery is to build effective teaching teams or cohorts around a certain subject or grade level.


In Ed Catmull’s book “Creativity Inc.,” the co-founder of Pixar says, “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk.” If they are avoiding risk, they are also avoiding potential solutions, change and innovation. People, particularly millennials and 21st century learners, want to create and work in environments that seem to be open and have “space” for original ideas and the opportunity to pursue them and make a difference. Whether the difference is to us, each other, the community at large, or the bottom line, people will gravitate towards and remain in work environments where they feel they are contributing in a positive way to the context around them.


So now that you have the creative brain trust of your organization identified and working in a supportive, idea-rich environment, what is next?


Choosing Your Fork – The Back Half of Leading Creativity … coming soon!

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