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"Leadership in action"

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Barbara Stymiest
Chief Operating Officer
RBC Financial Group
The Women's Canadian Club of London
London, Ontario

January 13, 2005

Thank you for your kind introduction. And thank you all for coming out today. It is a pleasure to be here. For me, speaking to a Canadian Club is like coming home. To speak to the Women's Canadian Club of London only intensifies that feeling.

For this is the city in which I spent some of the most important and formative years of my life. I am acutely aware that it was my experiences in London that propelled me into the world, equipped me to take hold of opportunities, and set me on the path to a fascinating and rewarding life.

When I was first asked to speak to you, I had originally intended to focus on the topic of managing change in capital markets. But much has changed since then. We have been witnesses to one of the worst natural disasters in the history of humankind.

And somehow, in the face of what we have seen nightly on television and in the newspapers, and with the reality of the devastation still so close, I felt that to talk about managing change in capital markets didn't quite cut it.

But while we have witnessed the most horrific tragedy, we have also seen the resilience of the human spirit. I find it extraordinary that, when the world was faced with so much despair, and when everything seemed so dark, the twin lights of hope and kindness managed to shine so brightly.

In the last few weeks, we have been reminded of what people are capable of, and this redeems our faith in our common humanity.

In the end, as in so many other things, the Bible got it right. We are our brothers' keepers. And our sisters' keepers. And keepers of all the children in the human family.

But we need not merely be witnesses - we need not be merely spectators to this global tragedy. We can take action.

And we have seen action in the extraordinary outpouring of generosity of people from every walk of life.

However, beyond the immediate devastation in South Asia, lie ongoing challenges that won't just disappear when the images of all those victims fade from the front page. The hard work of rebuilding the wreckage of lives and communities will continue long after the cameras have gone home and the global spotlight moves on.

This is a challenge for the entire world.

In Canada, for example, we have declared our willingness to embrace new immigrants outside the usual rules. And that is to be applauded.

We have decided to clear the way for the adoption of the orphans created by nature's destruction, and that, too, is to be applauded.

But I wonder if will we continue to sustain our help over the years for all those affected countries as they continue to relive the trauma of a few ghastly minutes in what, until then, was a tropical paradise?

If that is to happen, it will require leadership of a high and enduring order. And that is what I would like to talk about today. Leadership.

Leaders can come in all shapes and sizes and can emerge in the unlikeliest places. We have our formal leaders, of course, the people we elect. And our corporate leaders.

But there is another kind of leadership that is needed in times of crisis, and that is the leadership of individuals.

People who see a need and take the lead. Leaders who are not hobbled by politics or bureaucracy or red tape. And much of what has happened since December 26th has involved this kind of leadership.

These leaders mobilized their communities and friends almost overnight to collect medical supplies, clothing and cold hard cash. Even our children have taken their piggy banks and Christmas money to agencies like the Red Cross, Oxfam, and Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Through their actions--through their groundswell of support--these individual leaders inspired the rest of us - including the leaders of governments and corporations - to become involved as well.

I am not sure how to define this kind of leadership. It is a bit like art - hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

And we have been certainly been seeing it, throughout Canada and around the world.

But if leadership is hard to define, there are at least a few qualities that we all recognize when we see them. Today, I'd like to talk about five of those qualities.

  • First. Leaders inspire others.
  • Second. Leaders have vision.
  • Third. Leaders bring out the best in others.
  • Fourth. Leaders take action where others are content to sit and watch.
  • And lastly, leaders must stand for something. Or to put it differently, they must be firm in their convictions but flexible in their outlook.

I have been fortunate in my life and career to have met and worked with leaders who possess many of these qualities; so in my remarks today, I hope to share some examples of how I've seen these five qualities in action.

The leaders that have emerged to help provide tsunami relief are the best example I can think of in recent memory of how leaders inspire others. I have been especially inspired by how our young people have become so engaged in our collective response.

My daughter is only six, and after she heard about the disaster, she asked if I would pay her for her chores. That way, she could take her earnings to school to donate to her class' fundraising efforts.

I've heard similar stories from friends and colleagues and complete strangers.

I know there can be no bright side to a tragedy like this one.

But look at how the first instinct of these young people was to help. Look how they have rejected the very idea that they are helpless before such primordial forces. Look at all they have accomplished.

You cannot help but have a renewed confidence in the quality of the young people who are our next generation of leaders. Imagine what a world we will have if even a small percentage of our children stay engaged and renew their committment to helping solve other pressing social and environmental issues of our time.

We are leaving our children a world that's more tattered than it should be, but they've demonstrated they're up to the challenges. Why have they been so effective? Because, like all great leaders, they have vision-the second quality on my list of five.

Maybe vision is too high-toned a word. They have been good leaders because they saw things that others didn't see.

Rosalyn Carter, the wife of former American President Jimmy Carter said it well:

"A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go but ought to be."

A great leader is not, as one of the leaders of the French revolution purportedly said, someone who declares "There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."

A great leader has a clear vision of how a better future could or should unfold. Think of Pierre Trudeau or Lester B. Person, or Tommy Douglas. Or, closer to home, a good example is one of the pioneers of this club.

One of your leaders, in 1910, was a certain Mrs. Edwards. But she was more than simply a founding member. Mrs. Edwards was a peace activist, an engaged citizen of the world, and a political activist a good 20 years before Canada had even legally declared women to be persons. She was a delegate to the international conference in Geneva involved with the Herman-Jordan Peace Plan. She was a member of the London Branch of the League of Nations Society - 10 years before there was a League of Nations.

Hilary Weston, when she spoke to this club on your 90th anniversary, called Mrs. Edwards "the Jane Fonda of her time." She was, above all, someone who saw potential where others did not - and acted upon what she saw. And she led others to see the world as she saw it.

She not only had vision, but she also had the third quality of leadership from my list of five - she could bring out the best in people.

There are certain types of people who, by their very professions, fall into this category of leader, such as teachers, coaches and parents. These are the unsung heroes who seem to simply be woven into the everyday life of our social fabric. But I don't know where we would be without them.

I was very lucky to have grown up surrounded by people-leaders- who consistently inspired me to be my best. My father was an entrepreneur and independent businessman, and if you happen to know any entrepreneurs, you'll know they have both boundless confidence and energy. They believe that anything is possible.

Now if you had asked me when I was a little girl what I wanted to be when I grew up, I can guarantee I would not have said "chief operating officer of a financial institution." I wanted to be either a doctor or a dentist.

And, because all through my life, my parents instilled in all of us-my two sisters, my brother and me-the belief that we could be whatever we wanted, both of these careers seemed like entirely viable options to me.

In my family, we were all expected to do the best we could at whatever we attempted. My parents set the bar high, and we tried to meet it. And they led us by example.

I only hope I will have a similar influence on my daughter Siobhan, to instill in her the same values my parents instilled in me. And a bit of fun with the right attitude about life won't hurt her either. Invite me back in 10 years or so and I'll let you know how I did!

Well, as you can see, the medical/dental thing didn't quite work out, and I enrolled in the Ivey Business School.

But, there was more to school than lectures and exams, just like there is more to life than one's career. So, with my dad's words ringing in my ears that anything is possible, I decided that I wanted to give diving a try. And with almost no formal training, I tried out for Western's varsity diving team.

There too, I was blessed with a coach who looked beyond my inexperience to see my potential. His confidence inspired me. His patience calmed me. And his praise rewarded me.

And thanks to my coach, I managed to spend four very challenging, but happy years on the Western diving team.

It's not often you get a chance to thank your coach so publicly in front of such an illustrious group, but I am thrilled that Keith Stewart is here today, watching me on another kind of platform, and I would like to acknowledge and thank him.

Some leaders, like my father and my coach, are born with natural talent. Instinctively, they know how to bring out the best in those they lead. They naturally inspire people to work together. But what some do by instinct, others must be taught. And one of our responsibilities as leaders is to foster the training and development of future leaders in our communities and organizations.

This leads me to the fourth quality of leaders.

True leaders don't wait for others to make the first move; they lead by taking action.

Indira Gandhi is a good example of this. At the tender age of 12, she became the leader of a children's group to help end British control of India, and eventually became the first woman ever elected to lead a democracy in 1967. She credits her parents and grandparents as her inspiration.

" My grandfather told me that there were two kinds of people," she once said. "Those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group. There is much less competition."

She was right.

There will always be people who will stand around and talk, or criticize, or wait for others to make the first move. These are followers.

Leaders take action. Leaders create change. Leaders get involved.

And leaders should not rest until they are sure that the next generation will have the skills they need so they can achieve their own potential as citizens in the global community.

I know that this is the reason that the Woman's Canadian Club of London provides scholarships to young people in your community-because you want to help foster and support tomorrow's leaders.

We can all do our part in this regard, either through supporting or volunteering with formal organizations such as Junior Achievement and Big Brothers and Sisters, or getting involved more informally through our own families, schools or community organizations.

This leads me to the fifth and final quality of a leader: leaders must stand for something: they must be firm in their beliefs, but flexible in their outlook.

Like poker players, leaders must know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em.

Here's an example of what I mean.

When I was just starting my career with Ernst and Young, one of my clients was Wrigley's, as in Wrigley gum. You might not know that William Wrigley, the founder of the company, actually started out in 1891 selling soap to wholesalers.

To make his products more attractive, he offered gifts such as free baking powder to his customers. Eventually, the baking powder proved more popular than the soap. So Wrigley got out of the soap business and began to sell baking powder full time.

Again, using free gifts to spur sales, he included two packs of gum with each can of baking powder.

I'm sure you can see where this is headed. The gum was an even bigger hit than the baking powder. Wrigley had found his niche. And he created an empire by being flexible and adapting to change.

Leaders often have to make tough decisions, and must have a clear sense of when to retreat or change course. But a leader must also be guided by an inherent, underlying set of values and principles that do not change.

I believe that the character of leaders is revealed by the clarity of their convictions, the choices they make, and the promises they keep. Leaders may change their strategies and tactics, but great leaders are anchored by unwavering principles and values.

Let me turn my attention back again to this city where I went to school, because I think London serves as a fine example of this final quality of leadership: this city has a strong set of values, but is also flexible in its outlook and adaptable to change.

I lived here in the 1970s when I was attending the University of Western Ontario. In those days, at every turn, one was reminded - as one was supposed to be - of another London, from Piccadilly Street to Oxford Street to the Thames River.

It had a certain quaint charm about it, and many people remember those days fondly. Certainly I do.

But if I wasn't a regular visitor, I would hardly recognize London today. This is a city transformed. You just have to look at the new restaurants from every corner of the globe, or read the entertainment listings in the Free Press to see the difference the years have made.

London is reaping the rewards of its openness to the energy and ideas of the broader world. Even more important, London is reaping the rewards of its willingness to embrace people from around the world, and of realizing the vision of leaders past and present who saw the possibilities of the city's transformation. It doesn't always happen that way.

We often forget in this country what a great and successful experiment we have had in welcoming immigrants and embracing diversity.Not everyone is happy about the changing face of our cities and our country, of course. Democratic societies aren't about making everybody happy. But no one disputes our success.

And London is an outstanding example of how a community should embrace newcomers.

Almost 20,000 new Canadians arrived in London between 1991 and 2001, and visible minorities accounted for 71 per cent of the population increase in the city. It is the eighth most multicultural city in Canada. Today, almost 20 per cent of London's residents come from other lands, with over 10 per cent of the city's population now made up of visible minorities from places like China, Vietnam, and the Philippines- and the city is richer for it.

That took leadership. The kind of leadership that came from organizations like the London Cross Cultural Learner Centre that, over its 35 year history, has developed both the expertise and the networks to help immigrants adapt to Canadian life.

The kind of leadership that the Women's Canadian Club of London provides by holding receptions for new Canadians following the ceremonies that mark that rite of passage known as citizenship.

Those of us born in Canada may take our citizenship for granted, but for those who come from other countries to embrace this country, it is the most precious thing in the world.

And maybe it is.

This didn't happen by accident. It happened because people with all those qualities of leadership of which I have spoken took it upon themselves to lead this community to embrace these newcomers. And they made a better city and a better country by doing so.

Now there is a new challenge.

In the wake of one of the great tragedies of modern times, we need to open our communities to new people, to those who have been traumatized, body and soul, by what they have survived.

The challenge is to bring these people into the embrace of our communities in the same way as we have welcomed others in the past. The challenge is to provide that extra assistance, that extra support, that extra bit of help that will make the difference.

Governments have to play a role, of course. So do businesses large and small, as do school boards and community organizations like the Women's Canadian Club. But the greatest difference will ultimately be made by leaders who rise from the community -- individual leaders who see potential where others only see barriers. And it is these leaders who will help create a better city and a better future for all of us.

Is London up to that challenge? It's always been before.

I have no doubt London will continue to show the rest of the country and the entire world how community leadership responds to adversity.

Thank you for attention and good luck in your work.