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"Seeing the Invisible": Leadership in Action

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Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government Affairs & Business Development
RBC Financial Group
Canadian Institute of Management (C.I.M.)
63rd Annual National Conference
Sheraton Hamilton Hotel
Hamilton, Ontario

June 24, 2005

Trudy, thank you for the wonderful introduction…while many of you know this year's conference chair well, I was delighted to hear that Trudy's roots are in Atlantic Canada (she's from St. John's, Newfoundland and I'm from Woodstock, New Brunswick). We also share a strong interest in education and learning…not only has Trudy worked in this field since 1984, I understand she earned the 2003 Lucy MacEachran Scholarship (an educational scholarship you're all familiar with through C.I.M.), plus she's known for getting right down to education business at the Niagara Training and Adjustment Board and T. Parsons Education Services. Obviously, she wears many professional hats - leader, manager, action-based learner and entrepreneur. And there's more…Trudy is also an avid basketball fan, which ties in with a story I want to share with you - a story that revolves around "seeing the invisible": leadership in action, the focus of my remarks this afternoon - a story (edited for our purposes) that I came across at - in one of the monthly newsletters.

"A young man named David lost both legs in a farming accident, when he was a young child. David grew up loved and supported by his family, including (siblings) who were all athletically inclined. Every weekend it seemed, the family attended various tournaments - basketball, baseball, volleyball, you name it. Living in a small town, David was not able to participate in athletic events specifically for physically challenged individuals. So he spent a lot of his time helping out at practices, doing whatever he could to be part of the team. David had a wonderful perspective on life. He dreamed of one day becoming a great basketball player.

David's mother marveled as his optimism (especially about basketball), but was never so astounded, as on the afternoon she drove him to the local post office. Earlier in the day, David's mother informed him that they needed to go down to sign up for Selective Service - David had just turned 18 (as you can tell, this story is based in an American town). Once they arrived at the post office, David's mother reminded him why he was there. Upon seeing the look on his face, she asked, "Do you know what the Selective Service is?" David said he did not. She smiled and said, "Despite the fact that you have some physical limitations, we're signing you up for the draft."

David's eyes grew wide! His smile ran from ear to ear! He could barely mutter the words, but at last he said, "WOW, WHAT TEAM DO YOU THINK WILL PICK ME?"

Now that's a story about the power of vision and leadership - the power of seeing the invisible. So let's talk about "seeing the invisible" for the next few minutes - the impact on your careers, your lives and your circles of influence.

You know, "when people say, leadership involves vision, they generally refer to the ability of leaders to look into the future and articulate what they see in a way that's compelling to those around them. But for some leaders, it means something more: (it also means) the ability to see what lies under everyone's noses, but what others, including some very smart people, cannot see" - in other words, "seeing the invisible." I often recall what Helen Keller said, "There's only one thing worse than no sight - to have sight but no vision."

While leadership is hard to define, "you know it when you see it, feel it, and hear it - it's inspiring." An effective leader creates and instills vision, energy, trust and clarity - a leader encourages and supports people - a leader lets you know there's a vested interest in your success - the team's success. "A great leader pulls others along rather than pushing them around. It's an important distinction so I'll say it again: Great leaders pull others along instead of pushing them around."

Leadership is also about communication and consistency in communication - sending the right signals, not bellowing orders. As we're all aware, "command-and-control leadership never earns the hearts, minds and will of others"…some words of wisdom from The Growth Coach.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric has stated, "Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion." Clear visions continue to help shape and drive many companies and organizations. The Canadian Institute of Management's vision to ensure C.I.M. designations are recognized as a high standard of achievement in management is your guiding light. Disney's vision is about "making families smile." "Microsoft wanted to create beneficial software that would compel people to have a computer on every desk at work, home and school." RBC Financial Group's vision is to always earn the right to be our clients' first choice. And being first makes a difference. Broadly speaking, these are examples of organizations seeing the invisible - leadership in action.

Jonathan Swift said, "Vision is the art of seeing things invisible." This reminds me of one of my favourite anecdotes: "A (business executive) was asked if he was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost (the company) $600,000. He replied, "No, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?" Having faith in people or as the theme of your conference goes - "Improving Managers: It's All about People" - is about seeing the invisible - leadership in action. And let's remember, good leadership is also good management.

And let's not forget another facet to seeing the invisible - as author James E. Austin refers to in his book - The Invisible Side of Leadership - and that's community leadership. "Research reveals that strong corporate (responsibility) performance both benefits from and contributes to strong financial performance in a virtuous circle." John Whitehead, former Chairman of Goldman Sachs, believes it's short-sighted to view community leadership as simply altruistic. He said: "Don't think this is a charitable thing where you will get rewarded in heaven. You get rewarded right away because you'll be known as a company that is conscious of its (corporate) responsibility, you'll attract better quality employees (and) your stock will sell at a higher multiple." Research also tells us that while giving back to communities is very important in many organizations, the perceived benefits relating to "human resource management, culture building, and business generation" are very important too. Seeing the invisible is good business.

Part of every leader's role, whether in the private, public or not-for-profit sector, is to help people appreciate the full value of what they contribute. As Frances Hesselbein, editor-in-chief of Leader to Leader asserts: "That starts by using more inclusive language — eliminating from our vocabulary "subordinate", "direct report" and "superior" and talking instead about colleagues, (teams), and partners (and partners include suppliers). How we talk about people's contributions, deploy their talents at work, and structure the organization, has everything to do with how people perform. "I am just a volunteer" or "I am a cog in the wheel" does not build a vibrant and engaged organization."

Some of you may be familiar with the book Daring to Be Different, by author and business executive James Hatherley. He uses the example of lifters and leaners in his discussion, "with lifters defined as those who uplift the organization and upgrade the quality of individual performance…and the meeting and committee oriented leaners - those who (often) block opportunities and derail progress."

I'm sure we can all think of lifters and leaners in our professional and personal lives. Motivational speaker Jim Davidson says: "When we jump in and make a real contribution, whether it's our job, career or a project, the momentum begins to build and we have set the wheels in motion for even bigger and better rewards down the road. It all starts with our attitude. The one thing we have going for us is the power to choose. When we truly understand that over time we really do get back what we first give, we can then choose a course of action that will bring us all the rewards we desire."

While reading the National Post's supplement on Canada's Museum for Human Rights in Wednesday's newspaper, I couldn't help but reflect on lifters and those who see the invisible. I couldn't help but reflect on the late Dr. Israel Asper, founder of CanWest Global Communications Corp. When Izzy announced the establishment of the Museum on April 17, 2003 (a project he envisioned more than twenty years ago), it was no coincidence the April date marked the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. His interest in civil/human rights was a lifetime interest. His vision revolved around the creation of a distinctive, architecturally exceptional museum to help recognize human rights as the foundation for equality, dignity and freedom - "the only human rights museum of this scale in the world."

He envisioned the Museum as an "international icon the equivalent of Big Ben in London and the Eiffel Tower in Paris." He envisioned "the Queen, Nelson Mandela and the descendants of Martin Luther King and Gandhi coming to Winnipeg for the official opening of the Museum." He said: "There's a tendency among Canadians to aim for the middle…we should be reaching for the stars." Izzy Asper was all about leadership in action…and today others, most notably his daughter Gail Asper (Managing Director of The Asper Foundation) are making his passion and his dream a reality. When Gail spoke about lifters and leaners at a luncheon in Winnipeg last week, it was pure leadership in action. Like her father, Gail Asper sees the invisible

Here are more seeing the invisible stories:

  • On Tuesday night, while watching a re-broadcast of the 2005 National Aboriginal Achievement awards on APTN, I was reminded of documentary filmmaker Brenda Chambers, who received one of the awards for media and communications. Brenda was, in part, honoured for her groundbreaking series, Venturing Forth that focuses on aboriginal business, language, culture and youth. Brenda is currently president of Kelowna-based Brenco Media Inc., an independent video and television production company…and beyond her many awards, she sees what others don't automatically see. She realized early on that aboriginal issues could "no longer (be) invisible in mainstream media" - she realized early on that "making film and TV shows which cross over to reach aboriginal and non-aboriginal audiences" was the way to get First Nations stories in front of a larger audience. Brenda Chambers sees the invisible

  • Hannah Taylor is an amazing nine year old Winnipeg girl who started painting ladybugs on jars to raise money for the city's homeless last year. She founded the Ladybug Foundation and has earned "recognition, respect and support from politicians, business leaders, artists, musicians and the general public across the country." Hannah speaks up about the homeless in cities and towns from coast to coast - she was the youngest person ever to address the Empire Club of Canada in April. Hannah Taylor sees the invisible

  • A young man named Matthew surely "isn't just any 8 year old boy. Matthew is concerned about and involved in the welfare of other human beings and animals who share his city (Toronto). That's why, for his birthday this year, instead of presents for himself, Matthew asked his friends to please make a donation to The Pathways to Education Program" - a program, in Toronto's Regent Park, the oldest and largest public housing project in Canada. "Matthew knew that in doing this, the gifts his friends gave to him was the gift of helping other young people get to school, stay in school and move on to post-secondary programs. Matthew and his mom are an inspiration to their friends, colleagues, their community and Pathways." Just ask Marni Schecter-Taylor, Director of Development and Communications for Pathways to Education. RBC has supported this seeing the invisible project over the last four years - and we'll take special pride on July 4, when our summer internship program begins for members of Pathways' first ever graduating class. "We've seen Pathways blossom from an idea on paper to an exceptional best-practice program - a program, which has demonstrated the potential to be replicated in communities across Canada and abroad." Matthew and Marni see the invisible

  • In 2003, when more than 400 people converged on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for a conference on Diversity and Islam — Bridging the Gap, the first initiative of the Canadian branch of Women Engaging in Bridge Building (WEBB), Nazreen Ali, president of WEBB Canada, already knew it was right and timely to be building bridges and fostering understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. She and others are focused on the journey. Nazreen Ali sees the invisible

  • John Godfrey, Minister of State (Infrastructure and Communities) and Member of Parliament for the Toronto riding of Don Valley West, continues to focus efforts on the children's agenda and early childhood development. John "realized early in his career that an investment in children would benefit all sectors of society and would enhance Canada's future social vitality and economic prosperity. He's a strong advocate of the notion that promotion of early childhood development can have long-term benefits that will extend throughout a child's life, engendering positive consequences in adulthood." Minister John Godfrey sees the invisible

  • The Caledon Institute of Social Policy profiled a story about one of RBC's clients, who several years ago, had "the energy and drive, to insist we make our documentation accessible to people who are blind or partially sighted. (This client) also turned that determination into a successful business which now produces information in multiple formats in a number of languages. Sharlyn Ayotte realized she could apply her understanding of communication styles to create an access and production system which would generate alternative, multiple formats on demand (e.g., large print, Braille, audio and e-text). Today, her company. T-Base Communications (, is one of Canada's largest producers of information in multiple formats." Sharlyn Ayotte sees the invisible

  • Chioma, who only goes by one name, "is dedicated to speaking to elementary and high school students about making the right choices in life", with a focus on education - the 3Rs of respect, restraint and responsibility. In 1999, she started Chioma Productions Inc., a home-based business in Toronto that includes the motivational speaking series, "Chioma Talks." She's an amazing individual (with an equally amazing story) who encourages Toronto's youth to pursue whatever goals they might have - no matter what colour their skin is or what social background they come from. Chioma sees the invisible

  • In November 2002, Diana Burke, Senior Vice President of Information Security Systems and Technology for RBC Financial Group (Toronto) received the Tony Coelho Award from Bender Consulting Services of Canada (BCSC), a firm that specializes in providing employment opportunities for Canadians with disabilities. Diana was the first Canadian to receive this prestigious honour…"she's worked at the highest levels at RBC to promote the competitive employment of people with disabilities, influencing other business leaders to do the same." When it comes to promoting diversity, Diana Burke continues to see the invisible

As you can tell, I have several stories to share about people and organizations that see the invisible - people who see what others don't necessarily see or choose to see - people who often see what's right under our noses. And I'm sure there's many more seeing the invisible: leadership in action stories sitting in this room. So here are some parting thoughts for you and perhaps some ideas for our open discussion:

  • "Leaders are like eagles, they don't flock; you find them one at a time."

  • "Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy. (In any event), do what's right. That's the secret of leadership." (General H. Norman Schwarzkopf)

  • "If leaders are careless about basic things - telling the truth, respecting moral codes, proper professional conduct - who can believe them on other issues?" (James L Hayes)

  • "It's important to see the uncomfortable truth - to get comfortable with the uncomfortable."

  • "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." (General George S. Patton)

  • "One of the most important things about a great leader is this thing called selfless service. You're not doing it for yourself, you're not doing it to stroke your ego, you're doing it in spite of yourself."

  • And here's some sage advice that's close to home. "Choice, not chance determines destiny. Let gratitude be your attitude, as it's the greatest virtue and the parent of all virtues." That's Thomas F. Williams talking, as part of his C.I.M. valedictorian address on June 4, 2004.

And finally, according to Max DePree, "the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you." So thank you very much - and let's all raise the bar when it comes to seeing the invisible": leadership in action!

Now let's hear from you…