Public Sector
May 7, 2012

Leading from any chair

CGE Vol.13 No.3 March 2007

I am writing this from my hotel room in Ottawa, Canada, where I just made a presentation on Authentic Leadership to a conference of 600 managers and executives in the Government of Canada. After a halting introduction in rusty college French, my first words in English were, “When it comes to Authentic Leadership, I believe we just saw a perfect example of that yesterday afternoon!” I was referring to General Rick Hillier, Canada’s Chief of their armed forces, the equivalent of the USA’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who addressed the group at the close of the first day’s session.

Given what is happening these days around the world, some readers will have a negative reaction to my selection of a military person as my model. But after this, my second experience with him, I now say that General Hillier is the most natural, the most authentic-and therefore the best-leader I have ever met. Here’s why I say that.

“We are Recruiting the Nation”
During his hour on the platform, General Hillier showed several newly-produced television spots, designed to not only recruit young men and women into careers with the military, but, as he put it, to “recruit the nation.” He wants the whole country to know and appreciate what their armed forces do. Rather than present the military as something fun or adventurous, at his direction these “commercials” showed it like it really is: the hardship, the danger, the risk, the service and sacrifice. He said, “This is what young people are looking for. They want to make a difference. They want to hear it straight. That’s what they respond to: the hard truth, told to them by someone they trust. Our recruiting is way up these days. I want our country to be proud of who we are and what we do. When that happens, we’ll have solved a lot of problems.”

If that’s not an important aspect of authentic leadership in action-seeing and tending to the larger context as a way of influencing people-I don’t know what is. . .

“If the Family Breaks, the Soldier Breaks”
He went on, bring the larger context down another level: “If the family breaks, the soldier breaks.” He said they had discovered that when the soldier’s family is doing well, the soldier does well, and when the soldier’s family is having trouble, the stress “breaks” the soldier in some way. “So we do whatever we can to attend to the health and well-being of our soldier’s families.” This leads the soldiers to know that their organization has “got their back.” In a fight, we in the military were trained not to leave a buddy behind. His leadership takes that principle from the battle front to the family front. “We’ve got your back at home, too.”

When a Canadian soldier or airman or sailor is killed, General Hillier makes a personal visit to that family, expressing his and the nation’s sorrow. “It’s not spin, either. We literally wrap ourselves around that family.” Imagine the loyalty that would flow in a company or a country that did that. What would be the impact on the spirit of everyone involved? That’s leadership. Genuine caring about the people and what happens to them. Simple. And extremely rare.

“Whatever you think your authority is, exceed it!”
In a conversation the last time I was with General Hillier, we were discussing the leadership development work that I do, and we got around to “empowerment.” We agreed that it had become a buzz word that had virtually lost its meaning. But we also agreed that it is a reality-or should be. He then told me a story about an incident that happened when he was in Bosnia as part of the UN Peace Keeping force there. One day he was tasked to lead a combat team into a potentially hairy situation. He asked his commanding general, “What is my authority on this mission, sir?” The general told him, “Rick, whatever you think your authority is, exceed it.”

“John, I’d call that empowerment in action, and I have tried never to forget that lesson.”

Can you imagine your boss telling you, “Whatever you think your authority is in this situation, exceed it”? When a client, Dr. Bruce Cutter, the Physician leading Cancer Care Northwest, an innovative medical group, heard me tell that story, he enthusiastically, took it on and says that to the staff around him several times a week now. (Bruce Cutter could easily have been #1 on my list of best leaders I have known. . .)

“Go Big When You Have the Chance”
Another of General Hiller’s core principles seems to be to continually challenge his people to think outside the box, as the saying goes-and practice that himself, leading by example. He told me he tells his staff and anyone he speaks to in his visits to the troops, to “Go big when you have a chance.”

As he explained it, “It usually takes the same amount of energy to do a small thing as it does to do a big thing. Why not go for the big one?!” (This sounds quite similar to what we call an “Impossible Possibility” in our own change consulting work.)

“Lead from wherever you are”
The title and theme of the Ottawa conference this week has been “Leading from Any Chair,” and can be traced back to a keynote presentation by Benjamin Zander, Conductor of The Boston Symphony and author of The Art of Possibility. At the last conference in Ottawa for Government Leaders, he told us that he challenges his musicians to “think like the Conductor and lead from your own chair, wherever it is.” Like Benjamin Zander, General Hillier wants everyone in their organization, regardless of title or position, to be ready, willing and able to step up and make something happen when the situation requires it.

To illustrate this principle, instead of talking about it, General Hiller brought with him three decorated soldiers who had just returned from Afghanistan, where they had been involved in an intense three-day battle with the Taliban. (Along with many participants that I spoke with afterward, we remarked on how young our country’s soldiers are, how we turn the fate of our nation over to these men and women who are only slightly older than school children. And how bravely they step forward when called on.)

During the early stages of the fight on that plain in Afghanistan, all the officers in the company were either killed or injured, leaving the unit with few, if any, designated leaders. Things could have turned very badly for the Canadians. Surrounded and out-numbered, they were literally fighting for their lives. But these three young non-commissioned soldiers (two corporals and a sergeant), stepped into the leadership void and rallied the troops to fight and hold, organizing the defense, and eventually driving the enemy off. When the relief company arrived, no one could believe the group had survived. They had been led, not by their designated leaders, but by people from the “lower” levels in the chain of command who saw what needed to be done and stepped in to make it happen.

General Hillier, standing on the platform with the three young men, told us their stories. Looking out on an audience with hardly a dry eye anywhere, he echoed what I had said to the last conference: “Leadership is an attitude, not a position.”

The Best Leader I Ever Met
The reason I can say today that General Hillier is the

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The Government of Canada was the nation’s largest employer with 274,370...