Cover Page



Praise for Straight Talk on Leadership

Title Page



A Note to the Reader


Introduction: Moving Backward at the Speed of Light

Part I: Leveraging Our National Brand through Bold Leadership

Chapter 1: Crimes of Leadership Malfeasance

Chapter 2: Lessons from the Recent Past

Chapter 3: Hidden Costs of the Current Crisis

Chapter 4: Confronting Our Complacency

Chapter 5: Mastering Transformational Tension

Chapter 6: The Canada Brand—An Inexhaustible Natural Resource

Chapter 7: Leveraging the Maple Leaf

Chapter 8: The Canadian Mosaic, Version 2.0

Chapter 9: Spirits of Our Past

Part II: Meeting the Future Today

Chapter 10: Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

Four Leadership Challenges, Eight Leadership Competencies

Chapter 11: Challenge #1: Sense Making and Sense Shaping

Contextual Intelligence (CQ)

Strategic Intelligence (SQ)

Chapter 12: Challenge #2: Clarity and Credibility

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Decision-Making Intelligence (DMQ)

Chapter 13: Challenge #3: Understanding and Perspective

Innovative Intelligence (INQ)

Ambiguity Intelligence (AQ)

Chapter 14: Challenge #4: Creating Winning Conditions

Talent Intelligence (TQ)

Collaborative Intelligence (COQ)

Chapter 15: Mistaken Beliefs and Naïveté

Chapter 16: Raising the Flag

Part III: Preparing for Transformational Leadership

Chapter 17: Rebuilding the Franchise

Chapter 18: Winning Is an Attitude

Chapter 19: Playing the Canadian Game

Chapter 20: Benefits of Healthy Paranoia

Chapter 21: Thinking about Tomorrow

Chapter 22: Clear Vision and Sensitive Radar

Part IV: The Basis of a High-Performance Culture

Chapter 23: Teamwork vs. Team Performance

Chapter 24: Mistakes of Leadership

Chapter 25: Middle Management Malaise

Chapter 26: Coaching to the Bell Curve

Chapter 27: Culture of Grit and Determination

Chapter 28: Battling Stagnation

Chapter 29: The Team Is Not the Sum of Its Parts

Chapter 30: Facing Reality in the Mirror

Chapter 31: Stocking the Credibility Bank

Chapter 32: Discipline and Accountability

Chapter 33: Understanding Your Organizational DNA

Chapter 34: Modern Anthropology in the World of Business

Chapter 35: Superstars, Studs and Starlets

Chapter 36: Corporate Culture and Performance

Part V: Strategic Thinking vs. Strategic Planning

Chapter 37: Peripheral Vision as a Competitive Advantage

Chapter 38: Digging the Puck Out of the Corner

Chapter 39: The Importance of Total Candour

Chapter 40: Avoiding Conflict Is a Mistake

Chapter 41: Acting when Pivot Points Emerge

Chapter 42: Thinking in the Future Tense

Chapter 43: Opportunity Sensing

Chapter 44: The Narrative of Intentional Choice

Chapter 45: Focused Ambition

Part VI: The Importance of Human Capital Management

Chapter 46: Building Bench Strength for the Future

Chapter 47: Decline of the Dream

Chapter 48: Paradise Postponed

Chapter 49: OMG—They Are Back!

Chapter 50: Generations X, Y and Z?

Chapter 51: Shifting Values, New Challenges

Chapter 52: The Experience Economy

Chapter 53: Redefining Work

Chapter 54: The War for Talent, Version 3.0

Chapter 55: Role of Academia

Chapter 56: Role of Governments

Part VII: The Critical Role of Talent Management

Chapter 57: Owning the Podium

Chapter 58: Striving for Mediocrity

Chapter 59: Intellectual Capital

Chapter 60: Human Capital Planning

Chapter 61: Tears and Disappointment

Chapter 62: People, Practice and Perspiration

Chapter 63: Cost of Benign Neglect

Chapter 64: Investing in Development

Chapter 65: Societal Change in High Gear

Chapter 66: The Cost of Incompetence

Chapter 67: Knowledge Architecture

Chapter 68: Playing the Modern Game

Part VIII: Building the Collaborative Organization of the Future

Chapter 69: Compromise: The Enemy of Success

Chapter 70: Carpe Diem

Chapter 71: Collaboration Recast

Chapter 72: Reputation Management

Chapter 73: Misguided Focus and Human Nature

Chapter 74: Truth, Lies and Mediocrity

Chapter 75: Fresh Air and Brilliant Sunlight

Chapter 76: Shared Pain, Shared Gain

Part IX: Unleashing Innovation and Driving Creativity

Chapter 77: Reimagination

Chapter 78: Abandoning Certainty

Chapter 79: Prisoners of Our Mindsets

Chapter 80: Games We Play

Chapter 81: Human Nature Revealed

Chapter 82: Diversity, Imagination and Originality

Chapter 83: Creating Value by Creating Opportunity

Chapter 84: Brain over Brawn

Chapter 85: Rebels on Mahogany Row

Chapter 86: Expanding the Experience Repertoire

Chapter 87: Mindset for the Future

Chapter 88: Intuitive Genius Unleashed

Chapter 89: Competing for Relevance

Chapter 90: Overcoming Our National Hangover

Part X: The Art and Science of Effective Decision Making

Chapter 91: Decision Risk

Chapter 92: The Fog of Business

Chapter 93: Learning from Failure

Chapter 94: Upside of the Downside

Chapter 95: Understanding Human Frailty

Chapter 96: The Bias Trap

Chapter 97: Covering Our Asses

Chapter 98: Broadening Our Portfolio of Choices

Chapter 99: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Part XI: Straight Talk Conclusion

Chapter 100: Defining Canada's Future


About the Author



Praise for Straight Talk on Leadership

“It is clearly time for Canadian business leaders to confront our national leadership dilemma. Williamson lays out a compelling agenda for leaders to act on to prepare us for a successful tomorrow.”

Warren Bell, Executive Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer, OMERS (Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System)

“Williamson's approach is effective and real-world: confront truths, wear them, and move forward quickly with accountable action. This book is an invaluable recipe as to the how and why leadership is critical to Canada's economic future.”

Rupert Duchesne, Group Chief Executive, Aimia Inc. (Formerly Group Aeroplan Inc.)

“This book is for leaders who aspire to make a difference by transforming their organizations for global competitiveness. It is for those who approach leadership as a privilege to be re-earned each and every day, rather than a reward for past successes. Doug covers the landscape of issues facing leaders today in a compelling, insightful manner, and always with the frankness for which he is respected in the business community.”

Eric Siegel, President & Chief Executive Officer (Retired), Export Development Canada

“The turbulent fast changing times we live in pose great leadership challenges. There are no easy leadership recipes. Doug Williamson's unvarnished straight talk puts the environment in global perspective and provides leaders with a competency framework suited to the times we live in. A must read.”

Naseem Somani, President & C.E.O., Gamma-Dynacare Medical Laboratories

“Succeeding in global markets requires an aggressive and competitive style. Doug has created a must-read blueprint for Canadian companies to succeed in domestically and internationally. Open communications and high transparency are the hallmarks of the best-run companies, and Straight Talk on Leadership makes a no-nonsense, patriotic plea for pragmatic leadership in the boardroom.”

Robert Corteau, Chief Executive Officer, Altus Group Limited

“Doug Williamson's book recognizes the unique position occupied by Canada in a changing global economy. He reinforces the need for Canadians to take advantage of that perspective by demonstrating a new type of leadership better suited to building not only highly profitable but also sustainable business organizations in this changing world. Rightfully, he sounds a warning in the event we do not heed the call to action.”

Mark Young, Managing Partner, Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP

“If you are currently a leader in Canada, or aspire to be a successful one someday, this is a must-read book. From the title of the Introduction—‘ Moving Backward at the Speed of Light'—Doug's book has forced me to stop, think and plan action to change.”

Johanne R. Bélanger, President, AVW-TELAV Audio Visual Solutions

“Doug Williamson understands the fabric of Canada. Strategy has been his forte and his book brings this to life. He sees the need for new leadership in business so that Canada itself can become a truly global leader. This is lofty, but necessary, thinking. I would hope that not only business leaders, but that many of our political leaders would read and follow Doug's teachings. He has hit the nail on the head!”

John Martin, Retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Maxxam Analytics Inc.

“This book takes us out of our comfort zone. Doug challenges us to not accept the established norms and lets us know the consequences if we do. A mandatory read for all those who realize that businesses and institutions lacking in visionary leadership won't reach their potential and often will actually fail.”

Judson Whiteside, Former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Miller Thomson LLP

“Motivating employees is the key to successful growth, both in Canada and elsewhere. The challenge for managers of international growth is the tailoring of management and incentive tools to reflect the cultural differences of employees in different countries. Doug's years of experience in assisting managers to identify and resolve these business issues are now available for all to read.”

Nick Orlando, President & Chief Executive Officer, Martinrea International Inc.

“The world is now, more than ever, a changing landscape. Straight Talk on Leadership is an excellent and thoughtful read that extends the knowledge base of leadership and provides valuable insights. It clearly defines the challenges facing the modern business leader. This book rises like Everest, above all other leadership books.”

Mary Ellen Carlyle, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Dome Productions

“It is refreshing to find a uniquely Canadian perspective on leadership, the business challenges we face and the opportunities afforded us. This is what Doug delivers best—straight talk—without pulling any punches.”

David Harris, President & Chief Executive Officer, Kinectrics Inc.

“This book is a must read for all current and future Canadian leaders. As a country, Doug's call for greater leadership and transformational leadership is timely and well warranted.”

Douglas Harrison, President & Chief Executive Officer, VersaCold Logistics Services

Title Page
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This book is dedicated to all of the proud, hard-working men and women of Canada, including my grandfathers, Cyril Edward Williamson (1906–1988) and Maxwell Harvey Gifford (1900–1969). They represent the everyday people from small towns, farms and fishing villages across this country who, with nothing other than their dreams, big hearts and calloused hands, built this country one brick at a time. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, not only for their efforts and commitment to building Canada, but also for promoting Canadian values and for their unwavering faith in the basic good and positive intentions of people everywhere in the world.

This book is my humble effort to honour our past by providing fresh ideas and constructive solutions that can assist Canada in realizing its full potential in a rapidly changing, more complex and far more competitive global environment.

A Note to the Reader

This book has been written for all concerned Canadian citizens, business leaders in every sector, politicians and government officials at all levels as well as professors and their students. This book aspires to provide a voice of hope for every Canadian worker, future business leader or entrepreneur who believes:

In this book, we will:

I hope this book will serve to create a vigorous national dialogue about Canada's economic future and the role business leaders should play in ensuring Canada remains relevant in the midst of a rapidly changing world order.


Straight talk is Doug Williamson's speciality. I have worked with nobody better at the scarce skill of having courageous conversations with managers who need to hear the unvarnished truth about their performance. Sometimes that requires a combative spirit, sometimes a soft word that “turneth away wrath.” Doug can do both, which requires him to curb his natural desire to just get on with it.

It's that practical approach I have admired and valued in the 10 years that Doug and his Beacon Group consultancy have worked with The Globe and Mail management team. Early on he deduced that we were not fans of textbook solutions, or prone to endless patience, so he adjusted his style to military-march pace. That sense of urgency and willingness to challenge the status quo are ever more appropriate today, as the world of media goes through a period of startlingly fast change that is disrupting business models all over the world.

Doug's book, with its emphasis on taking ownership of difficult situations and not flinching from risk, is relevant to The Globe, as it is to much of corporate Canada, with its tendency to cautiously take the middle of the road.

Preaching resolute confidence stemming from a thorough understanding of the requisite competencies is what Doug Williamson does best. His message is not for the faint-hearted, who rapidly slip down his rigorous ratings ladder.

To follow the Beacon way implicitly assumes courage to confront the challenges and manage through them with gritty determination. Sometimes managers find that too hard to handle—the tendency to back off and revert to the status quo should never be underestimated. If this book doesn't deliver the stiffening of the backbone needed to make the difference, none will.

Transformational change begins with big ambition and courage. It's questionable if those qualities can be learned, but the tool kit to build conviction of purpose and commitment to team success is what Doug's book delivers. It's a step-by-step, methodical pursuit of big objectives and small wins that make it possible. This is how managers can create the self-belief that enables them to communicate a compelling story to staff, without whose support all else fails.

At The Globe, Doug has been the coach in our corner for the last decade, so we can vouch for his pragmatic wisdom. Now, sit up and pay attention!

Phillip Crawley

Publisher and CEO of The Globe and Mail


Moving Backward at the Speed of Light

I have always had a fascination with the special, rugged and romantic role the lighthouse had in shaping Canada's national fabric. This is, no doubt, born out of the fact my grandfather Cyril Williamson was a lightkeeper for 25 years (1945–1970). While I was growing up, I had the good fortune to work as his “assistant” during the summers. Every day we watched giant ocean-going vessels from all corners of the world pass no more than 50 metres away from the house in which we lived. I remember how my eyes would strain to read the exotic names of their home ports written on the stern just below their national flag. It never ceased to amaze me how the crew on board, from countries all around the world, could look toward shore and see the red ensign, and later the maple leaf, flying proudly from the flagpole mounted just in front of the giant light tower.

Those summers taught me not just about the joy and dreams of adventure, but also a great deal about life, hard work, character and respect for working men and women everywhere. People like my grandfather, who have always relied on others to guide the ships of businesses, both large and small, to responsibly manage the companies for whom he worked in order to provide honourable employment and to lead on many different levels. In return, these everyday Canadians have been happy to toil in more routine work and less glamorous roles with the simple desire of earning a decent living for their families and hope for their communities.

In a working lighthouse, the light serves to guide ships when the night is clear and the passage calm. However, of far more interest to me was the second important piece of navigational guidance equipment, the foghorn. The haunting, dark, rumbling tones of the horn help to guide and orient ships on those occasions when their visibility is impaired by fog, mist, snow or heavy rain. Captains of ocean-going vessels have known for centuries that when conditions change, they have to alter their perspective and modify their dependencies, in this case, moving from the power of sight to the comfort of sound.

Adaptation is the basis for all forms of human survival. It is the willingness, ability and confidence to adjust to circumstances as they change, and to allow other tools or senses to guide us when conditions shift and our existing repertoire is no longer sufficient or relevant. So it is in business. When conditions change, we need to alter the methods we use to make sense of the environment around us and then adjust our course. If we don't, we will sail straight onto the rocky reef hidden by the thick wall of fog.

Throughout history, the great leaders have known when and how to adapt or pivot. They seem to have a sixth sense and know exactly the right moment at which to abandon what is no longer working and comfortably embrace new tools more suited to the conditions they find themselves in. It is part experience, part intuition and part luck, but successfully identifying and then navigating these crucial inflection points is the responsibility of our leaders. The average leader can perhaps do a respectable enough job when conditions are normal, but it takes an exceptional leader to navigate confidently in uncertain, uncharted and turbulent waters.

It seems as though these dangerous, pivotal moments have been presenting themselves with increasing frequency in recent years. The more interconnected global economy, rapid technological advances and constantly evolving social, political and demographic changes have all come together to alter the once reliable maps we used to guide us in the post-WWII period. The question that should concern and even haunt us is why, in the face of these changes, so many leaders, organizations and nations have not been brave enough, vigilant enough or just plain smart enough to switch tack from what may have been right and relevant in one set of circumstances to a new course, better suited to the changing conditions of the future.

Which brings me to the heart of this book—Canada.

*   *   *

Canada is a country of great wealth, whether measured in terms of our ample natural resources, our outstanding agricultural good fortune or our abundant maritime gifts. We who live here have been granted easy fortune in a world where many are far less privileged and less well endowed than we are. In the old economy, Canada's physical assets were a source of unique economic value creation and placed us in demand as an exporter of products sought by others to feed their people and fuel their own economies. Canada was a good partner with whom to trade. We were reasonable, respected and fair. We had no natural enemies or historical foes and, as a result, we were regularly called upon to be a peacekeeper in situations where others were not so welcome or trusted.

Slowly, our international role began to diminish as Canada stepped back from not only its traditional role as a recognized and well-regarded international peacekeeper but also as a primary source of traditional raw material exports. Unfortunately, this happened at about the same time the global economy matured to a point where goods, services and intellectual capital were replacing wheat, ore, fish and other natural resources as the primary engines of economic prosperity.

According to a recent study undertaken by the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank, Canada seems to have lost its way more than many appreciate. We are currently ranked 17th in the world in terms of our “ease of doing business with.” This means we are well behind countries such as Singapore at number one, the United Kingdom at number seven and Australia at number 10. To add salt to the wound, it means we are also ranked behind a collection of countries not normally considered to be in our “tier,” such as Georgia, Malaysia, Korea and Taiwan. We cannot allow this perception of our “brand” to continue.

An even more damning set of numbers comes from the CIA World Factbook and its report on GDP growth from 2010 to 2011 (as of December 10, 2012). Canada ranks 140th globally, with a year-over-year improvement of only 2.4%, compared to the world average of 3.7%. While we may be able to understand the reasons our low growth rate puts us behind such fast-charging notables as China in 9th place at 9.2% or India in 35th place at 6.8%, we still rank behind others with whom we share a similar profile, such as Sweden who is in 100th place at 4.0%.

It appears Canada has gone from being a virile, confident and enthusiastic teenager to a much slower-moving, tentative middle-aged adult in a relatively short period of only 50 years. We have failed to pivot when we should have. We have failed to understand what has been changing around us and appreciate that it is not what we have that matters, it's what we do with what we have, and we have not done enough. It is not too late, though. We have an outstanding platform on which to build a modern, globally focused economy, but we are not using it wisely, and any number of global indices and benchmarks tell us this.

On the positive side of the ledger:

On the not-so-positive side of things, there is other data that should deeply concern us in a changing world.

There is no doubt these indictments will sound harsh, and even unfair, to those who want to believe that the merits of our noble past afford us the guarantee of future success. Unfortunately, that would be like a ship's captain failing to heed the warnings of the foghorn and choosing to maintain the same course, even though the conditions have changed so fundamentally that full speed ahead will only bring the rocky shore closer at greater speed.

Facts Are Facts

Let's just call it like it is. We are moving backward for a number of pretty basic and easy-to-understand reasons. We must be more willing than we have been to face the facts as they are, not as we wish them to be.

It's becoming more than a little embarrassing. It is as though we are playing the modern game with the same old equipment we used 20 years ago, while others have the latest in new technology, fitness and development and have totally reinvented the way in which the game is played. Have we become the other guys? Have we become the guys we played in the 1972 hockey Summit Series? The guys with ill-fitting helmets, old skates and wooden sticks who dared challenge us at our national game and who put the fear of failure and disgrace into all of us until Paul Henderson scored late in the final game. These were the guys we didn't take seriously until Vladislav Tretiak and Alexander Yakushev showed us that those from outside Canada could be just as good as we are at our own game. Do we have to wait until the final few minutes of the game in order to pull out a victory?

Sure, we are strong and safe as a nation. Sure, we did not suffer from the forces of financial greed and rampant speculation that infected our American neighbours and almost brought them, and the rest of us, to our knees. Sure, we have been far more fiscally responsible than some of our European cousins, but so what? Without doubt, the cold, hard facts indicate we were able to weather the global economic storm in better shape than most. However, it is not just about survival and stability for the sake of survival and stability. It is about making wise use of the foundation we have in order to build for the future. It's not about conserving what we have, it's about using what we have to drive opportunity, expand relevance and support our social infrastructure.

Instead of playing to win, we are playing a safe, defensive game. As a result, we are losing our relative share of opportunity and not putting ourselves in a position to actually win the game. We have not taken anything near the advantage we could have, given our relative financial position and our respected national brand. Our national preference for comfort and our predisposition toward complacency have lured us into a lazy slumber. We seem better suited to an afternoon nap on the dock by the lake, rather than the cut, thrust and effort needed to participate in the shaping of the future global space. To quote Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad, “in the race to the future there are drivers, passengers and road kill.” It is as though we made a choice, but have conveniently disregarded the inevitable consequences.

Into the Stiff Wind

There is an old saying in the field of organizational behaviour that we tend to “acquire our bad habits in good times and our good habits in bad times.” Well, things have been pretty good in Canada for quite a while now, so it's not surprising that we have developed some fairly bad habits. We should be concerned about one of these habits in particular, which is our tendency to think that we are doing better than we really are. In this regard, it looks to many as though Canada is suffering from a severely dislocated shoulder, which has, no doubt, been brought about by patting ourselves on the back too hard.

It's time to check our navigational aids, realistically assess the environment and make the necessary changes in course, speed and direction, before it's too late. The fundamentals have changed and, as a result, we need to acquire some critical new leadership competencies in order help navigate the future. We need imaginative, inspired and transformational leaders to shape the opportunities that lie just over the horizon, but which are fading fast. We need businesses, in every sector of the economy, to do a better job of developing transformational leaders. We need leaders equipped for the times in which we live and, even more importantly, leaders equipped for the future that is coming our way, whether we are ready or not. We need leaders with new capabilities, fresh mindsets and passion for building the hypercompetitive Canada of the future, not those who are content with the comfortable Canada of the past. We need transformational leaders, not caretaker managers.

It is not about avoiding choices or postponing the inevitable. It's about character, credibility and the courage of conviction. It is about a clarity of purpose and a willingness to tackle opportunity to the ground with fierce resolve and total commitment. It's about transformational leadership.

Leading for a Better Future

There are two contrasting ways in which to lead an organization (or a country) to a new and radically different place. One way is to lead by map, and the other is to lead by compass. In the first instance, the leader provides a very detailed map to the organization and asks people to follow it. In the second instance, the leader chooses a general direction, points people in that direction and has confidence in their ability to follow the compass setting. Both approaches can work well enough, although the optimal one depends on the situation. As a result, the leader has to know which one will work best, given the circumstances.

Maps are fine on land, where the road has been surveyed and travelled by others, and where convenient signposts have been erected along the way by previous travellers. Maps are fine in a certain, predictable and known environment where progress can be measured in small increments with little or no deviation permitted by the leader.

On the other hand, as any good sailor from well before the time of Christopher Columbus would tell you, it is quite different in the frothy, uncharted waters of the open sea where, out of necessity, a good compass replaces the map as the primary means of navigation.

Today, we are being asked to lead under conditions that look much more like those of the stormy, unpredictable North Atlantic than the well-paved routes of the Trans-Canada Highway. As a result, we need leaders who are comfortable, confident and capable of navigating by celestial compass, not locked into the rigid, dependable, well-travelled roads shown on a map.

Those leaders are different. They are built with a certain confident sense of themselves and others. They are not handcuffed by memories of the past or fears of the future. They are not dependent upon the tried, the tested and the true. They are adventurers, driven and motivated by the thrill of discovery, not the comforts of home. They know a ship moored at harbour is not the safest place to ride out a major storm. They know their ship is much better off being at sea when a hurricane blows through. The choices are up to the captain, and the outcome will be the direct result of the choices he or she makes.

The Importance of Perspective

Award-winning photojournalist Dewitt Jones arrived at some valuable conclusions for business leaders based on his experience with National Geographic magazine over the past 20 years. His professional career choice has required him to master the same skills as those needed by business leaders today. They include not just a spirit of adventure, but also a mindset that allows him to unveil the possibilities that others do not readily see. He is constantly challenged with finding just the right set of conditions, the best possible position and the optimal angle to frame the picture he wants to shoot. His mission is to capture our imagination and, in his own words, “to make the ordinary, extraordinary.”

Although Jones is not a business leader, or even someone with direct experience in the corporate world, he has wise insight. He knows that when it comes to facing the unknown and trying to make sense of something unfamiliar, it is the process of putting the picture in proper focus and ensuring that it appeals to our emotions that, in turn, makes the impossible possible and the improbable more likely.

Straight Talk First Steps
The lessons from the field of photography are summarized in the book that Jones co-wrote with Stephen Covey and Roger Merrill, The Nature of Leadership. They can readily be adopted by the transformational business leaders we need in Canada as a starting point to help guide us through the wild and uncertain conditions we face.
Step 1: Switch to a Wide-Angle Lens
Many of us look at the world, and its opportunities, through too narrow a lens. We allow our personal fears and professional insecurities to block our ability to frame the picture correctly and then, to make matters even worse, we combine that with our traditional Canadian risk aversion. Together, these traits lead us to believe that it is only by shrinking the size of the challenge that we will be able to make it more understandable and digestible.
Unfortunately, the very premise of that argument is false. In fact, it is the exact opposite of what we need to do. In the face of the unpredictable and the unknown, we actually have to change to a wide lens. The wider we frame the picture, the more of the picture we see. The more we see, the more we understand. The more we understand, the lower our fear and trepidation.
Switching to a wider lens has several benefits:
  • It prevents us from falling into the easy trap of assuming there is only one right answer to a problem, rather than multiple right answers. If all we do is start to chase the first right answer when it appears in our lens, we deprive ourselves of finding even better right answers, which are possible if we can just learn to shift our vantage point and be patient.
  • It affords us a much better chance of identifying the place of greatest long-term opportunity, rather than the place of most short-term convenience. We need to see the vantage point that provides the best overall perspective from which to view the challenge.
  • It frees us from the terrifying disappointment of failure that comes from not capturing the perfect result on our first attempt. When we search for multiple right answers rather than seeing an initial setback as a failure, we can begin to see it as a necessary rite of passage on the journey toward excellence. We can begin to see the first right answer as a sure sign that we are headed in the right direction and that the next right answer is hidden just out of view around the corner.
There is a deeply embedded tendency in corporate life to do just the opposite of these three things. We often seek the easiest, quickest, cheapest answer, the one closest to perfection, and then stop, saying it is good enough.
The better choice would be to widen the lens setting, back away to gain better perspective and then force ourselves to discover multiple right answers before we lock ourselves down too early to a fixed and readily obvious path.
Step 2: Change Your Filter
Bias is a dangerous thing, especially when you are not aware it exists. While it is a normal part of the human condition, it does not have to be the fatal flaw it often becomes. The puncturing of worn beliefs, the debunking of old myths and the elimination of institutional and personal bias should be amongst the top priorities of the modern transformational leader.
The leaders we need must have the patience, objectivity and discipline to look at problems from multiple perspectives when faced with chaos, uncertainty and the unknown. We need leaders who combine that ability with the courage to suspend their judgment and understand that problems take on different shapes in different lights. Putting the correct filter on the camera can make the situation look entirely different than it may have initially appeared.
In the crazy, fast-paced, high-pressure world we live in today, it might seem counterintuitive to suggest we consciously slow down when faced with a challenging situation we have not experienced before. However, continuing down the first road you find, at reckless speed and with careless abandon, can simply put you on a quicker path to eventual disaster. The better option is to pause, step back, calibrate and then define the challenge or opportunity in more depth by altering the filter through which you examine the issue. In so doing, you'll conserve energy and refocus your mission, and then you can deploy, at speed and with confidence, when it comes to execution and implementation.
In the current environment, the cognitive and interpretive skills of the leader will be put to the test like never before. The old approach, previously tried and tested, is not likely to be the best approach to use in solving new challenges where there is no precedent to call upon. The leader of the future must learn how to pressure test the underlying premise upon which assumptions are based, rather than gloss over the logic in the rush to find an answer.
Step 3: Adjust Your Vantage Point
If all else fails, if there is no wider lens to be had and no new filter through which to view the situation, then the very least that leaders can do is take purposeful and intentional steps to raise the level of their own curiosity. Great leaders know that chief amongst their curiosity skills is the ability to pose fresh new questions that, in turn, lead to new and fresh insight. Learning how to ask the wicked questions, those penetrating, deeply insightful questions rooted in curiosity, is a master competency required by leaders when facing the unknown or the unexpected.
It is not easy to be the constantly questioning provocateur, because the inevitable by-product of enhanced curiosity can be increased discord and anxiety. Deep questioning, by its very nature, means you are disrupting convention. Therefore, you need to be able to understand and embrace the inherent tension that comes from passionate debate and vigorous dialogue. Avoiding conflict, believing that consensus is always best and striving for superficial harmony are not the answers to excellence or breakthrough thinking.
The best way to gain a new, unique and clear perspective is to get away from the immediate task at hand, elevate your vantage point and put yourself in the place of greatest tension or discomfort. In other words, walk toward the fire, rather than away from it. In the case of business leaders, this inevitably means getting out into the real world of your customers, and your customers' customers, to see what they are feeling and experiencing. Leaders must be like anthropologists, willing to visit the gritty front lines of their businesses and get as close as they can to the “tribes” who work right at the coal face, where life can get tough. It is only there that they will be able to sharpen their perspective, awaken their senses and find the right questions to ask when they return to the boardroom table.
Final Thoughts
Every organization faces obstacles, barriers and excuses that get in the way of striving for the optimal outcome or of finding the next right answer and not just defaulting to the most easily identified and convenient one. In most cases, the bad trade-offs and poor choices made by the organization are well known and obvious to everyone except the senior leaders. All too often, the senior leaders are protected and cocooned from the unsightly realities experienced down the chain of command.
The leader at the top needs to defend against the lure of comfort and complacency by remaining vigilant, curious and active, even when it does not appear to be necessary. The current climate, in which the swamp has been drained, provides the perfect opportunity for leaders to see the rocks that had previously been hidden just under the surface. When they do so, they then have to deal firmly and convincingly with what are now the obvious risks and impediments to sustainable high performance.
Canadians are used to the regular changes of the seasons, and they understand that each new season has its charms and inconveniences. The global economic season has changed, and now you need to dress accordingly, based upon whether you believe we are approaching the promise of spring or the dark night of autumn.

Part I

Leveraging Our National Brand through Bold Leadership

Business leaders and politicians have notoriously short and convenient memories. Each time we hit yet another predictable cyclical economic downturn, we endlessly debate the reasons, are quick to point the finger of blame and then we conveniently use the excuse of external market forces as a means to justify our short-sighted overreaction. This recurring pattern of behaviour does no more than reveal the inherent weaknesses of our leadership acumen, and yet we allow the pattern to continue rather than learn, adjust and compensate accordingly.

In Part I, we suggest this recidivist pattern of misguided leadership behaviour has had an even worse impact on Canada than it has had on other countries whose leaders act in the same way. It has caused us to lose valuable competitive ground at the very time we should have been accelerating out of the global downturn with confidence. Canadians need to take a new stand, and our business leaders and politicians cannot be allowed to squander the tremendous hidden value of our national brand.

As Canadians, we need to find the courage and conviction to transform our economy through the restructuring of our historical business models and the rapid development of a new generation of leaders equipped to compete with a modern set of leadership competencies. These competencies of the future and the mindset of global competitiveness will allow us to remain relevant in the long term rather than shelter behind the short-sighted naïveté and complacency that have lured us into believing we are doing better than we really are.


Crimes of Leadership Malfeasance

Leadership is never easy, even in the best of times. So when you add the extra stresses associated with the deep economic downturn we have experienced since the fall of 2007, the competence of business leaders has been pressure tested like never before. Rising financial uncertainty, market instability and the enormous destruction of wealth we have witnessed across the global economy mean that every sector, household and organization has been touched in some negative way.

The loss of financial value in the stock markets, the depressed employment markets and reduced levels of industrial performance and productivity are the issues that most often make the headlines. They are the most visible of the consequences because they are the most easily measured. Harder to measure is the human toll, also a tragic consequence of a system gone wrong.

The global financial crisis has put the world into the worst economic and social tailspin since the Great Depression. The lingering effects of this inconvenient reality will be felt for years to come and, unfortunately, there are not likely to be any quick turnarounds. While there were a number of converging factors fuelling the crisis—many of them cloaked by complex financial market chicanery—the real underlying causes were behavioural in nature.

Whether it was greed on the part of financial institutions, speculators and market traders, or whether it was simple self-serving human behaviour on a more basic level, the fact of the matter is that too many people in the United States accumulated too high a level of personal debt to maintain a lifestyle they could not afford. It is like they were cheating and chasing the American dream on the backs of their credit cards or mortgage debt with the belief that rising property values in the long term would forgive the sins of overextending themselves in the short term.

In an environment of steadily decreasing interest rates and large inflows of foreign capital, which began as we entered the new millennium, the easy availability of credit fuelled a housing construction boom in the United States. As banks began to provide more credit, housing prices began to rise and wealth accumulation looked like an effortless, guaranteed ride for all Americans, many of whom were looking for a shortcut to prosperity.

With the tacit encouragement of both the government and the banks, Americans who could not afford to purchase a house willingly jumped on the bandwagon for fear of being left behind. Between 1997 and 2006, the price of the average American house increased by 124%. However, we now know it was not real value appreciation underpinned by sound fundamentals, but more like a sophisticated Ponzi scheme.

Observing what was going on, large foreign and domestic investors wanted a piece of the action, and so a series of financial agreements called mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDO) were created to allow those investors to indirectly invest in the housing boom. Between the intense competition for market share and a limited supply of creditworthy borrowers, mortgage lenders began to significantly relax their underwriting standards. They took on riskier and riskier loans, the so-called subprime mortgages, which grew rapidly to become 20% of all mortgages written by 2004 and remained at that high level for the next three years.