David Kilgour on Leadership

Written by  //  January 24, 2009  //  David Kilgour, Justice & Law, Rights & Social justice, Wednesday Night Authors  //  Comments Off on David Kilgour on Leadership


Remarks by Hon. David Kilgour, J.D.
Queen’s Canadian Leadership Conference 2009
Queen’s University, Kingston
24 January 2009

Congratulations to Queen’s on this conference. Also for using it to support the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which is doing much to ease the pain of the HIV/AIDS pandemic among our sisters and brothers in Africa.Your topic could hardly have been more timely in the week of the inauguration of President Barack Obama as the 44th American president. He appears to carry the confidence and hopes of even more Canadians and others around the world than he does Americans. It is truly the beginning of renewal for both America and the world.


Words from scripture–“Without a vision the people perish”–are carved onto an outside wall of the peace tower in Ottawa. Our ancestors certainly viewed vision as imperative for our nation and a responsibility for leaders. Voters, however, are able to detect soon enough when a “vision” is promoted only to advance a political agenda.

Visionary, disciplined and responsible leadership is hard to define, but most of us recognize it when we see it in someone like Obama.

Obama’s victory is ultimately a result of his vision.

In his inaugural address, the new president described how the American people “have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” He reminded us that “without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” He called on us to share the responsibility and work hard toward the great ambitions and imagination of humanity. “Greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less.”

True to Principles

In both of his books, The Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father, Obama shares his leadership principles: honesty, fairness, equality, independent thinking and service to the public. One could add accountability, avoidance of political expediency and pursuit of excellence. I was deeply impressed by how his mother ingrained these principles in him. Consider this passage in Dreams:

“Increasingly, (mother) would remind me of ( father’s) story, how he had grown up poor, in a poor country (Kenya), in a poor continent, how his life had been hard, as hard as anything that (stepfather in Indonesia) might have known. He hadn’t cut corners, though, or played all the angles. He was diligent and honest no matter what it cost him. He had led his life according to principles that demanded a different kind of toughness, principles that promised a higher form of power. I would follow his example, my mother decided. I had no choice. It was in the genes.”

“And it was in search of some practical application of these values (to “build community and make justice real”) that I accepted work after college as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago that were trying to cope with joblessness, drugs and hopelessness in their midst.”

His is a story of America’s progress. It is also one that embodies our struggle to achieve a better world, a reality in which the pursuit of the inalienable right to human dignity for all will unite humankind. Leaders should never waver in their determination to achieve this goal.

Fighting for principles unfortunately is often an uphill battle in many parts of the world, a reminder of how precious is the rule of law and democracy Canadians and Americans often take for granted.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Another leader of principle who has inspired many around the world is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate, who has spent most of 18 years under house arrest in Burma. She and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won about two-thirds of the votes cast in the 1990 election. The junta allowed none of the elected to take their seats. The UN Special rapporteur on Burma confirmed as a “state-instigated massacre” the attack on her peaceful procession in 2003, northwest of Mandalay, when about 100 people were killed; Suu Kyi was herself wounded. Humble yet extraordinarily determined, she has dedicated herself to the peoples of Burma and chosen to give up her family and freedom.

Gao Zhisheng

Gao Zhisheng of Beijing was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In 2001, he was named one of China’s top ten lawyers. He donated a third of his time to victims of human rights violations, representing miners, evicted tenants and others. When, however, he attempted to defend members of the Falun Gong spiritual community, the party-state unleashed its full wrath. This included removing his permit to practise law, an attempt on his life, having police attack his wife and 13-year-old daughter and attempting to deny the family any income. In 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”, although international pressure appears to have caused a suspension of the sentence for five years. Predictably, Gao did speak out again and his whereabouts is now unknown to the great concern of many in China and elsewhere.

Halima Bashir

Dr. Bashir last year wrote the first memoir by a woman caught up in the ongoing Darfur genocide, which has already cost an estimated 400,000 lives and forced 21/2 million into camps: Tears of the Desert. A member of the Zaghawa African community, she was working as a village medical doctor when the Janjaweed Arab militias, with the support of the Sudanese government military, began attacking the Zaghawa savagely. In 2004, they raped 42 school girls–some as young as eight–and their teacher, who were treated by Bashir. When she broke the rigidly-enforced silence about what had happened, a horrifying sequence of events occurred to her. Her book is a call to action by the international community.

Under current economic pressures facing the world, we must remember the struggle of these courageous, principled leaders. Failure to support them would amount to forfeiting our own beliefs because there must be no geographic boundaries to human dignity and the rule of law.

“Suckers and Duckers”

Perhaps I might insert something here my mother used to say. The world, she felt, was made up of essentially two kinds of persons–those who ducked out when the going got tough and those who did not: the suckers. Woe betide those aligning with the duckers. In fact, her advice was useful in almost 27 years as an MP. Other principles followed are available on my website (www.david-kilgour.com) under “Rule of Law/Democracy”; one was “Don’t give up if you believe a constituent’s cause is just”.

For example, about 20 years ago, someone was referred by a respected member of the Polish-Canadian community. After hearing his story, I decided to help and it became a long battle with officialdom, including: the Immigration, Justice and Solicitor General departments, CSIS and successive ministers of Immigration. Thanks to a series of tough minded volunteer lawyers and very determined staff in my office, Ryzard and Ella Paszkowski became Canadian citizens and are now doing well. The text of a book I wrote about the case with the assistance of these staff, Betrayal, The Spy Canada Abandoned, is on my website.

MPs are better judges than party whips about issues in their ridings. It is electors who send MPs to Ottawa. In the case of the GST bill, for example, several thousand constituents indicated in various ways their opposition to the proposed new tax. As a one-time tax lawyer, I was then (1990) personally convinced that it was not an efficient way to raise tax revenues. In the end, Dr. Alex Kindy and I voted against the GST bill and were immediately expelled by Brian Mulroney from the parliamentary Conservative caucus. In the ensuing election, only two Progressive Conservatives were elected across Canada; I was returned in the same riding as a Liberal. Many years later, I resigned from Paul Martin’s Liberal caucus, having lost confidence in his leadership. I learned in short: don’t abandon your principles and your voters even if it means leaving a political party-or two.

Leadership is Trust

Sound principles give leaders the ability to maintain the trust, respect and support of stakeholders, whether voters, fellow students, work colleagues, customers or whomever.

Many have blamed the economic turmoil across the world on investment bankers on Wall Street, in London and elsewhere–“captains of greed”. I’d add that another major contribution to our present situation was made by leaders, including many political ones, who chose political expediency over responsibility. In “the fierce urgency now,” to quote Obama again, we must demand that our leaders and officials demonstrate continuous responsibility.

Here are some suggestions:

Accountability and transparency

The decline of some major organizations, including Nortel, is often linked to a lack of accountability. I believe that leaders should, first and foremost, uphold accountability and transparency– cornerstones that help to distinguish democracies from other governance models. One effective way of doing this is by establishing and enforcing sound policies to protect whistleblowers. Far too often, ‘information patriots’ risk their careers and jobs in heroic efforts aimed at safeguarding the public interest.

Canadians have produced a leader with tenacity, grace, good humour, intelligence and principles in Joanna Gualtieri. As a portfolio manager of Canada’s diplomatic properties with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in the early 90s, she spoke to senior management about the abuse of the public trust in connection with a number of properties she had inspected abroad. Her work convinced her that gross mismanagement had cost Canadians very large amounts of money between 1986 and 1998; she did her utmost to have corrective remedies adopted by management. For this, she was ostracized and ultimately sent on leave without pay when she finally went public with her concerns as a whistle blower in mid-1998. More than 10 year later, Joanna is still fighting against a bureaucracy that seems to be more concerned about the implications of admitting to wrongdoing than respecting the public interest.

Joanna’s story is only one of many courageous Canadian whistleblowers who need the support and protection of leaders. I encourage you to find out more about these individuals and their organizations, FAIR and Canadians for Accountability, among others. You can find links to both these organizations on my website.

Dedication to Service

Obama’s background as a community organizer was the subject of both praise and derision during the US presidential campaign. In my opinion, dedication to public service is a trademark of responsible leaders.

There are also numerous examples of leadership and public service in business. I would like to refer to one who particularly inspired me. The late John Poole and his brother were the majority owners of Poole Construction Ltd. (now PCL Construction). When John Poole retired as CEO of the company, the two of them sold their majority stake to the employees rather than accept the highest offer. In the ensuing three decades, John Poole and his wife gave tens of millions of dollars to a host of cultural, educational, social and environmental institutions. When Poole died two years ago, columnist Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal noted, “( Poole) believed that every (person) owed a duty to his fellow citizens. He understood that living in a city isn’t just about occupying space–it’s about participating in the life of a community. It’s about taking responsibility for the future.”

At a time when financial resources are shrinking, our communities will require even more help, particularly for their more vulnerable members. Leaders should set examples for us in giving their time, resources and energies to our communities.

Values and Pursuit of Excellence

Countless organizations have been harmed when their leadership ventured into new areas without adequately understanding their circle of competence. On the other hand, at Southwest Airlines, for example, both management and employees know what the airline is good at and stick to it: Low-cost reliable air transportation. The implication for principled leadership is to have a core set of convictions. Without that focus, leaders yield to all kinds of pressures and achieve little of use to anyone.

In other words, leaders must ensure that their organizations remain steadfastly loyal to their basic philosophies, their raison-d’être. At the same time, leaders must also prepare their organizations to change everything else in order to meet the challenges of a changing world.

Faith in values and the pursuit of excellence have been tested over time as the “magic” combination for organizations. This is equally applicable to democracies, which are only truly sustainable when the values of equality, human dignity and rule of law are upheld and when innovations are made in support of these values.

Maintain inclusive culture

When leaders strive to maximize the wisdom of their communities, their organizations achieve much. The strength of Obama’s victory came as a result of the coming together of people of many origins, walks of life, and ages. The inclusive nature of the campaign organization has allowed the new president to avail himself of a network of talented people from which to fill about 7000 positions in his administration. This inclusiveness will allow him to stay close to the American public.

In successful businesses, inclusiveness can take on the form of no special “perks” for senior management only. Nucor Corp., one of the most-admired U.S. organizations, is a good case study. Every employee is a full member of Nucor’s team. The “no favourites” philosophy is demonstrated by giving employees the same amount of vacation days and insurance coverage, and no one gets a company vehicle, aircraft or assigned parking spot. The freedom to try new ideas gives Nucor a distinct competitive edge: a creative, get-it-done workforce. As a result, Nucor has been honoured as one of “100 Best Corporate Citizens,”, the “best in class”, “Best Big Companies” for environmental responsibility, corporate ethics, fairness toward employees, accountability for local community and many other criteria.

Mistakes Leaders Make

I define a leader as someone who does a lot more than the minimum every day and who wants to make a positive difference as often as possible. In the pursuit of principles and vision, however, it is easy to make mistakes. Has Fizel has written an interesting book describing ten errors leaders make and I’ve certainly made them all. Here are three important ones:

1-Don’t display a top-down attitude. “Because I am the boss” is not a successful strategy. Good leaders see themselves at the bottom of an inverted pyramid as servant leaders. Very often, the best of ideas come from people at the very bottom of an organization’s structure because the front-line workers have a better knowledge of those they serve.

2-Don’t put paperwork before people. For example, some managers object to interruptions, but the late and loved Henri Nouwen highlighted an older professor, who noted: ” I have always been complaining that my work was continually interrupted, until I slowly discovered that my interruptions were my work.” He also said, “People will never care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

3-Don’t forget that we all need affirmation, praise, compliments. Good leaders understand the power of the personal touch of kindness. They show respect, provide recognition and spend time with their team.


As our world charters uncertain waters in the face of enormous challenges posed by economic turmoil, racial conflicts and threats of terrorism, more effective efforts are required from all leaders.

More than ever, our nation, our world, demand that our leaders set their eyes on interests greater than that of their own, or their political party or organization. More than ever, leaders need to keep their eyes on the long-term vision for a better world of human dignity, equality and rule of law for all.

As we move forward, from the Kingston community that produced outstanding national leaders, including Sir John A. Macdonald and Flora MacDonald, let’s all work to make sure that our leaders guide us with vision, principles and responsibility.

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