And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

Delivered to the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce, London
March 18, 2009

Thank you, Yves, for that generous introduction. McGill has superb volunteer leadership, and Yves Fortier represents the best. I would also like to thank Nigel Bacon for the opportunity to speak here. And let me recognize as well, here with us today, Mr. James Wright, the High Commissioner of Canada; all three are distinguished alumni of McGill. I am also delighted that M. Pierre Boulanger, Agent-Général du Québec à Londres is here with us this evening. As is Steve Gauthier, Vice-President, Corporate Development for the International Financial Centre of Montreal, co-sponsor of this event with McGill. Thank you Steve. Finally, sincere appreciation to the members of the Chamber and McGill alumni for participating in this evening’s event.

It’s great to be in London – a magnificent city, and the U.K., which is, of course, the original home of McGill University’s founder. Born in Glasgow, James McGill spent his adult life in what was to later become Canada, developing Canada’s great 18th century export commodity – furs – and selling them to Britain. In that same tradition, I come to Britain from Canada bearing that most 21st century of commodities: ideas.

This evening I will offer some thoughts about how we nurture leaders to help us prosper, economically and socially, in a time of exceptional change and uncertainty. I’ll describe current societal images of a leader, and then illustrate how we might best shape the leaders of tomorrow.

Crisis – and opportunity

I know that, economically speaking, the last ten years have been no party: the Asian financial crisis, the bubble, the economic fallout from 9-11, and rollercoaster oil prices. Then came the sub-prime mortgage crisis, which started in the U.S. but, with globalization, has pulled down many of the walls that used to insulate us, and it has quickly led to widespread economic volatility and global recession.

Whether you work in financial services or not, living in a world financial centre like London cannot have been easy over the past six months. But to quote Winston Churchill, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty” – in this case, the opportunity to reshape our ideas of leadership.

To generate the creative and adaptive solutions that these difficult times demand, leaders will not only need to possess new knowledge and skills, but will also be called upon to display two qualities that have been painfully absent over the last decade – wisdom, and, authenticity. More about these in a few minutes. But first, to leadership – what do we expect of our leaders, in western societies, and, of ourselves?

The current state of leadership

While the definition and proper role of leadership will always be debated, we all have experienced the transformative power good leadership can quickly provide. “To lead” means to guide to a new, different place. Ultimately, then, leadership is concerned with change and as the pace of change accelerates, there is naturally a greater need for effective leadership.

And while we urgently need leadership, we must be careful not to lionize it. Our species has demonstrated a great appetite for mythical heroes over the course of history. But in the 20th century, we have become preoccupied with what renowned McGill management professor Henry Mintzberg calls a “cult of leadership,” perhaps rooted in America’s historically individualistic mindset. Images of rock-star CEOs and politicians are plastered everywhere. Mintzberg’s ideas, which I draw on extensively here, have never been more relevant than after this recent economic crisis.

It’s easy to see how this happened. Since ancient times, our thoughts have been organized, and our lessons passed on, through story-telling. Stories require central characters, who serve as linchpins to help us gather meaning from the swirl of events around us. In the telling, history becomes biography.

But this obsession with leaders “can lead us,” as Mintzberg writes, “to build organizations that are utterly dependent on individual initiative,” instead of functioning as inclusive, creative “communities.” When these organizations fail, we “blame the leader”, soothing our collective psyche by separating ourselves from a bad outcome.

And then we turn around and repeat our mistake by seeking a “better” leader. “Like drug addicts, each time we need a bigger hit.” I would agree that our cultish obsession with leaders is a cause of many of these organizational problems.

Unfortunately, leadership education, as sometimes found in MBA programs and other courses, too often creates overweening pride, leading to self-centeredness and even selfishness. When we empower only the individual, we disempower the group. There is, therefore, a need to grow more “distributed leadership,” which values not individual, “heroic” leaders, but qualities of leadership wherever they might be found in the members of a group. In distributed leadership systems, leaders administer what Mintzberg calls “just enough” leadership, which recognizes and encourages initiative across an organization, understanding that it takes many to achieve intelligent progress.

Leaders who encourage creativity and initiative in those around them, and who inspire ambition for change, rather than dictating it, create a greater sense of ownership and responsibility among members of an organization, whether the organization assembles within a company, a school, or a country.


Clearly, we need leadership and leaders – but just the right kind. And regardless of one’s political inclination, it is almost impossible to think of leadership at this point in time without referring to its most visible global personification: Barack Obama.

Many qualities make Obama popular. He is thoughtful, international, a fine orator, and he has superb people skills. But I think what makes him effective, more than any other factor, is that he understands that the best leadership comes from those who are authentic and who engage a group process of engagement and contribution. Obama seems at ease with showing what he doesn’t know, and he seeks advice and delegates. Rather than an entourage of “yes” people, he has assembled a team of very smart, dynamic rivals; as Abe Lincoln did, appointing for example, as senior colleagues, Hilary Clinton and Larry Summers. People who are different from him.

He knows that dynamic tensions -- disagreements grounded in mutual respect and shared purpose – often lead to creative new solutions. After all, why hire smart, talented people unless you’re going to listen to them? The least valued of communication skills – listening – also seems to be a key component of Obama’s strength.

And he is a clear communicator. When explaining a plan, rather than speaking from the present forward, he animates his long-term goals, then works back from victory, explaining the steps necessary to get there. Not enough leaders convey plans clearly; many have no “story”, no long-term vision at all. The current global recession is much more than an economic crisis; as Henry Mintzberg has pointed out, it is a crisis of management – and, therefore, leadership.

If we needed any proof, we now have it that placing undue emphasis on maximizing shareholder value on a quarterly reporting cycle artificially inflates prices. This, in turn, can justify outsized personal bonuses. Such self-centered behaviour rewards short-term action without regard for long-term consequences. Well, now, for all of us, welcome to the longer-term!

From here, the way forward will focus on re-balancing. Any strategy, for a person, business, city, or nation, must now take into account not only globalization, but how we balance and interweave wealth creation with our social goals, our larger societal priorities and values; concern for our environmental impact, global health, growing disparities for the disenfranchised, as well as economic stability and growth. The day where social values sit on one side of the ledger and wealth creation on the other is long gone; effective leaders will innovate new ways of interweaving mutual benefit and progress in these interdependent domains of civil society.

How do we make these issues part of an integrated framework rather than opposing goals?

Now, more than ever, we need leaders who are people grounded in wisdom and authenticity, people who will make the right choices for the medium and long term, even if they are unpopular in the short.

If James McGill hadn’t donated his Montreal farmland and 10,000 pounds in 1813 to create a secular institution of higher learning in an under-populated, often frozen land – a land that was not yet even a country – I wouldn’t be standing here nearly 200 years later as principal of that institution, an institution ranked among the top 25 universities in the world by the Times Higher Education-QS rankings for five years running. Now that’s long-term vision.

He could have left the land and his money for his family, or his friends – which would have made him popular for a short time. He didn’t. And after his death, he was unpopular. But now, 200 years later, he is a hero. And his name travels worldwide. Where will our future leaders achieve such values, such vision? I submit they will learn from many sources: from their families, community organizations, schools, universities and the workplace.

Again, I said “learn.” No leadership gene has been identified, nor is one likely to be. All those qualities Barack Obama exemplifies are learned. Leaders are not born; they are made. They are grown. And this takes me to the role of universities.

Making the next generation of leaders

Beyond the classic leadership qualities I’ve emphasized so far –wisdom, authenticity, vision, strategy, communication and cooperation – the leaders of tomorrow will need to be well educated; yes, professionally, but also in a broader sense in this age of globalization and tumbling boundaries. They will need to be multilingual, comfortable with and knowledgeable about the major cultures and religions of the world, and technologically and scientifically literate.

Technological savvy will do more than help the new leaders set up and manage the system of information flow every leader must now deal with. The new leaders will interface with the world in ways that those of you who are members of Generation X and the Millennial Generation already do.

This is the only way a leader can engage directly the organic devolution of authority that 21st-century communications technology and other factors have created, and the personal control over information and ideas that the citizens of this emerging new landscape will expect to exert.

This unstoppable expectation is growing at the speed of 21st technological advance, and is already creating increased social, economic and educational participation and diversity. Obama won the presidential election in part by organizing hundreds of satellite support groups over the Internet. His opponents could not think that way.

All of the elements that these new leaders require are the very qualities that the best universities foster in their students. As with James McGill, the story of most leaders is initially a story of personal growth, courage in reaching into the unknown, and success. Success gets your voice heard.

And where there is success, there has been opportunity. That’s the business universities are in – providing students and faculty members with the opportunity to develop and use their talents, via our form of distributed leadership. But at McGill, we’re taking this a step further by developing our teaching and research according to the “3-I”s approach: International, Interdisciplinary and Inquiry-based. Let me sketch a few examples of what I mean.


In an era where “global citizenship” will be a defining characteristic of leaders, you couldn’t ask for a more international university – or management school – than McGill’s. More than half of the students in McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management MBA program come from over 25 different nations outside Canada.

Two-thirds of our Management faculty come from abroad, so that at Desautels, walls between nationalities are tumbling. With so many viewpoints, the school's curriculum naturally leans toward advancing an understanding of global issues, with several new programs created specifically for that purpose.

One is the International Masters in Health Leadership, uniquely designed to give physicians, nurses and other allied health professionals a stronger understanding of how health care is organized in jurisdictions around the globe. Participants in this program come from different countries, bringing key issues from their own organizations and communities to Montreal to work on them cooperatively with colleagues and faculty.

The brainchild of Henry Mintzberg, and rooted in decades of research, the program is the only one of its kind in the world. It demonstrates that “best practices” can originate in many different contexts, and is spawning much-needed innovation in our over-burdened healthcare and health management systems.


Jointly with another Montreal-based business school, HEC, McGill has started a new Executive MBA program. Again, it is designed to enhance the skills of those with substantial business experience, basing its courses around different “managerial mindsets.” Students learn in English and French, and undertake two residential modules, one in Asia or Latin America.

After graduation, McGill’s MBAs fan out around the globe. Some of them find employment with help from an alumni network spanning 180 countries, but all of them secure those positions based on their 21st-century skills and McGill’s international reputation.

Both of these programs, and McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management more broadly, are rooted in the view that leaders should not just be global, but “worldly”. Foreign exposure can be risky in a financial portfolio, but in education it is the best way to diversify, and it expands knowledge, tolerance, creativity and openness.

The greatest asset of London, perhaps the globe’s most multicultural city, is not the shifting balance sheets of its banks and multinationals, but its exceptional population diversity and international connectedness.

Interdisciplinary and Inquiry-based

Now, McGill’s management programs are interdisciplinary and inquiry-based as well, but other McGill examples of these approaches comes to mind.

  • neuroscience and music
  • law/MBA/Engineering/Medicine

Just to explain, inquiry-based learning is about teaching people how to learn and how to research, starting with a question and teaching them to discover answers on their own. The teacher or research supervisor becomes, as we say, the “guide on the side, not the sage on the stage”. And the problem-solving skills developed through this training are indispensible to evolving leaders.

Now, ask any music-loving neuroscientist and they’ll tell you that Montreal’s International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, known as BRAMS, is the top spot for music research in the world – as some have put it, tops “by a long shot.”

The “brain and music” field exploded around 2000, when researchers realized that with current technologies, music can serve as a probe into just about every mental function, including perception, motor performance, memory, attention, and emotion. For example, patients learning to speak after a stroke can do so more easily if they sing along with someone else, or a recording.

Now, I won’t go into detail about our laboratories and sound studios that are the envy of the world, but I will point out what an excellent example the BRAMS lab is of interdisciplinarity. The program comprises professors and students from six disciplines – neuroscience, psychology, computer science, engineering, audiology and, of course, music – and from three different universities – McGill, the University of Montréal, and Concordia.

These three schools, like a number of successful companies today, both compete with each other and collaborate productively.

What does the BRAMS lab mean for leadership? First, exposing students and researchers to more than their narrow area of investigation helps stimulate new insights, making innovation more likely.

But beyond that, scholars in disciplines as disparate as music, neuroscience and engineering think differently, with different vocabularies and sets of assumptions. To break down the walls and successfully straddle the boundaries that separate these disciplines, then, students and faculty have to develop not only their mental agility and knowledge base, but their creativity, openness to new ideas, and interpersonal skills – essential assets for the new leaders.


In 1860, U.S. President James Buchanan said, “The test of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.” Global leaders in the past decade failed this test. They allowed “greatness” to be overtaken by selfishness.

But great universities such as McGill create opportunities for the new leader to learn how to lead – by providing a place for students to work in interdisciplinary contexts, by doing volunteer work, by playing team sports, by participating in student organizations, or simply by socializing with people from different backgrounds.

Universities nurture authenticity – by attending to the development of the personal qualities crucial to the new leader – reflective self-understanding, listening skills, empathy, integrity, and the ability to work collaboratively while, at the same time, having the courage to take new directions, to seek a better outcome.

That “greatness” that Buchanan claimed dwells in “humanity” – universities seek it in their students, universities find it in their students and faculty, universities “elicit” it – for the greatness is already there.

Thank you.

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