Address to the American Association for Thoracic Surgery Leadership Academy
Rose M. Patten, O.C., LL.D.
Chancellor, University of Toronto
May 3, 2019
Thank you, Dr. Keshavjee. And thank you for inviting me to speak to this very distinguished gathering. It is a tremendous honour.
Good morning, everyone. And to our many visitors, welcome to Toronto and-or to Canada.
One of the joys of being Chancellor of U of T is the opportunity to meet world leaders in virtually every field, and to learn about their brilliant work. This engagement is a perfect example.
I really enjoyed learning a bit about the founder of the AATS, Dr. Willy Meyer. I read that he was driven as a pioneer, precisely because no one believed safe thoracic surgery was possible. He defied that assumption, leading to a century of incredibly hopeful breakthroughs, touching the lives of countless people around the world.
Before I launch into my main remarks, of course I want to say a word about the University of Toronto’s record of leadership in the field. I am told that the following will be very familiar to all of you: the Shenstone/Janes tourniquet; the Kergin thoracoplasty and bronchoplasty; and the Collis-Belsey procedure, a.k.a the Pearson Operation. All were the work of thoracic surgeons in Toronto, where the first successful human lung transplant was performed.
Of course we are also immensely proud of the graduates of the “Toronto Program”, who have gone on to lead their own thoracic programs around the world. And then there are the seminal contributions of our Toronto thoracic surgeons in translational research and so many other innovative clinical techniques.
This is all to say, I am so proud to be here, to pay tribute to them and to welcome their wonderful colleagues from across North America.
Underpinnings of leadership models
Of course our topic today is leadership. It is a topic near and dear to my heart, something I have worked at and reflected on for decades. And now I am preoccupied with examining the shifts needed to be successful today, by translating current disruptions into the implications for leaders.
This work is the underpinning of the leadership models I have developed for my teaching to senior leaders, both at Rotman and at BMO. Over 900 leaders have studied it and it has now been fully adopted as the leadership framework at BMO. It animates my commitment to mentorship, both as a mentor and advisor and as a mentee for my own continuous growth. And it applies across all sectors and equally to men as to women – not least because the quality of leadership in all spheres has been lacking, and indeed slipping for some time.
There is no shortage of evidence of this leadership problem. We have seen it dramatically in the business world, for example, in the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. In many ways, we have still not recovered from that very disruptive experience. Indeed, since that period, we continue to see examples and evidence that causes us to question leadership, across many, if not most sectors.
This is worrisome, since leadership has never been more important – and it has also never been harder! And so, we must seize the day. And we can do so very powerfully, by being deliberate and intentional at enhancing our own leadership capabilities for today’s realities and not relying on yesterday’s assumptions, and by encouraging and supporting others, in being better leaders.
My teaching and advisory work with select CEOs, presidents and hundreds of other senior leaders had led me to observe and consider three patterns of leadership effectiveness: those who are highly effective and continue to excel through change, complexity and their ability to adapt; those who continue to sustain and perform satisfactorily in general; and others who struggle and become less relevant or even derail. And so, I have been preoccupied with examining what is at play with each of these situations, and have arrived at and confirmed several success factors and deficiencies.
When we further examine this phenomenon along with the significant disruptors and realities in our environment, we see a new context for understanding leadership implications. First, we see the dramatic increase in stakeholder expectations – including questions of trust, which now needs to be earned every day.
Next, the dominance of digitization. Experience is showing that the hardest part of adapting to AI and digitization is how you lead people, how you organize and structure work, how you adapt yourself, and how you mobilize people.
In addition, we see a changing workforce, with multi-generations and multi-cultures blending. Even a slight reflection on this will illuminate the implications this has for leadership decisions, values, and the importance of emotional intelligence.
Clearly, a different paradigm for leadership has emerged. What was highly valued and assumed and what has been represented by people who have served as role models, has now shifted, and unfortunately we have not recognized the shift well enough, nor taken enough action.
The late David Foster Wallace told a wonderful story in a commencement speech at Kenyon College in Ohio. He said, “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” Unquote.
The point is that complacency and comfort zones can make us oblivious to the reality around us. In our current context, we can thrive as leaders by intentionally and deliberately reinventing ourselves with far greater emphasis on enhancing our human skills and select other defining capabilities.
Perspectives on leadership
I will now spend a few minutes to assert several perspectives on leadership through more exclusive lenses.
For example, I often get asked, do we think leaders are born, not made? Does the “context” shape leadership or does the leader shape the conditions? Is good leadership (or bad) timeless? Do human skills improve with time? Is high performance the biggest success factor in choosing leaders? What are the most relevant – and defining – capabilities for now?
The starting and most compelling truth on those questions is that leadership is NOT timeless – it has shelf life. “Once a great leader, always a great leader” is a flawed assumption. I think of the great Einstein quote which hits this point well: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”
In other words, what got us here has changed. Leaders will do well to keep this thought front and centre. We now see clearly that context does drive leadership – the conditions leaders face need to be considered and well understood and well translated into what matters most. Those conditions include the realities just mentioned, and the organization’s internal conditions – its strengths and gaps, plus the cultural context within which the leader must lead.
I have done “close-up” leadership work with three CEOs in banking, two in health care, four in academia and three in government agencies. I have witnessed how the different contexts can shape the leadership emphasis from one sector to another and from one period to another. Each of these experiences drives home this crucial fact: context and conditions matter!
Another lens for choosing better leaders – which has led to an alarming level of confusion – is the belief that “high performance” is a guaranteed sign of “high potential” in leaders. Not true! Other factors are critical. This myth accounts for the fact that in most high-potential pools we see evidence that 30 per cent have potential to rise, 40 per cent do not belong in the pool and 30 per cent are borderline.
Human skills do NOT improve over time – they improve with feedback, self-awareness, adjustment and practice. As Aristotle said, “Excellence is not a mere act but a habit” – in other words that I find useful, we are what we do repeatedly. I believe this to be true, and we do have evidence that leadership can be learned and indeed must be continuously learned, reflected upon and practiced deliberately.
Leadership is hard! And it is not for the lazy! It is not for those who do not want it or for those who don’t have a purpose for it. I believe the role models of the future will be those who are (1) “open” and adaptable and seek self-assessment and feedback, (2) those who become increasingly self-aware and (3) those who care deeply about their impact on others.
This is a glimpse of the underpinnings of my work which culminated over the past two decades and has become the basis of the defining capabilities for being a better leader – what I call The Big 8. I will now quickly summarize those capabilities.
We can begin or end with Certainty of Character. It is at the core.
Character is not just about honesty versus lying or stealing. It is about earning and keeping trust by what you do, say and role model key factors, such as: responsibility – looking to self for cause courage; standing up for what is right; forgiveness – letting go of mistakes; empathy – putting yourself in others shoes (and I’ll have more to say on this in a moment); and of course, character is also about integrity – keeping your word.
The next defining capability is Adaptability, a new mindset.
For many years I have been asked, if I could identify just one capability that’s really important, what would it be? To this day, I have consistently said “adaptability”. But if only it was that simple! It is now referred to as “open mindset” or “open stance”. Experience shows it is hard to practice consistently. And those who can’t adapt will struggle, and even become irrelevant.
Also among the Big 8 capabilities: Empathy, relating to others, and emotional intelligence.
The poet Maya Angelou said the following: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Unquote. This is so true!
We now see empathy being identified and focussed in enlightened leadership in a number of key spheres. I have seen it in my teaching to military leadership and central bankers among others. It is no longer the soft skill which was seldom recognized in any list of leader requirements, other than maybe for HR leaders. Research is now showing the linkage between empathy and leadership success – even in the military, where we think of command and control and other such mindsets.
Next in The Big 8: Contextual Communication – telling the why, not just the what and when. This is one of my very favourites.
Leadership capabilities often include “effective communication”, and that is important. But, today those typical models of “clarity of message” and “crafting of messages” are not enough. People don’t automatically buy into the what and the when of your story or directive. They buy into the “why”. Why it’s being done, why it matters and to whom. “Why” appeals to feelings – the heart – versus pure logic. Appealing to people this way builds loyalty and trust. I call it a “sense making”.
The next defining capability: Spirited Collaboration, for better outcomes.
We all readily agree with the necessity of collaboration across teams and up and down teams. The nuance and essence here is about the nature of the collaboration. For example, consensus is good, but it doesn’t always get the best outcome. The concept of “spirited collaboration” ensures debate, dissent and decisions – the three “Ds”. We don’t have enough of this in our corporate ranks nor our board rooms (which often can be viewed as echo chambers).
Next, Strategic Agility – this is about letting go.
It’s related to adaptability, but a bit different. Adapting oneself is one dimension, but adapting strategies in an organization’s mission is another. Being strategically agile is about our willingness to let go of models and interpret trends, and our acceptance of the fact that most of our context is dynamic, not static. Seeing around corners, analyzing, adjusting and acting is a must in running any organization.
Next, we need the capability of Reinventing Self – of self-awareness.
This capability is pretty much the central theme of today’s remarks – being intentional about being a better leader; being deliberate about being a better leader; being self-aware, gaining feedback and acting on it.
The final defining capability in The Big 8: Developing Others. This is the Gold Standard of leadership. The leader’s biggest obligation is to pick and develop other leaders.
In his book, Turning the Ship Around, David Marquet coined the concept of leader-to-leader, rather than leader to follower. This is a concept I readily embrace as an obligation of leaders. Technical competence is NOT the basis for better leadership. Followership is usually propelled by personality. Leadership is propelled by empowerment, self-awareness and deliberate development of others.
This is where mentoring has a significant role to play – being mentored for the purpose of understanding one’s blind spots, as well as one’s strengths. Mentoring is now a proven part of continuing self-development and impacting the development of others.
Today most of the Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs. And we know that best practices now call for focusing at least 20 percent of learning and development, on mentoring. In fact, in one reliable survey, it was shown that CEOs and other leaders have at least one, if not more, mentees or advisors.
The benefits are huge, in both directions – and I know that like me, everyone here has experienced this. We tend to think first of the benefits to mentees – to give just one striking example, mentees are five times more likely to be promoted than those without a mentor. But the gains for mentors are at least equally great.
We know that most senior leaders have at least one blind spot or hidden strength which mentoring helps uncover. One of the great features of mentoring is to gain feedback for better self-awareness. And we know that a lack of self-awareness is one of the most common factors which cause leaders to struggle in their success. Studies show that leaders who are self-aware, who adapt and adjust, are up to four times more successful than those who do not.
Clearly mentorship makes a difference. Often, in fact, it makes a life-changing difference. It helps to build a more balanced world, through the advancement of women and others who are underrepresented in various spheres and strata. It also helps to build a better world, by helping us all to become better leaders. In these two, mutually reinforcing ways, mentorship is an effective means of progress for both leaders and society.
In closing, I will leave you with two more frames which might be helpful as a take away, as you become even more intentional and deliberate about leadership.
The first is what I call the Pendulum Shift, from what was highly valued to what is now more highly valued. And the second is a summary of the four important beliefs which underpin the leadership model you are taking away.
Thank you for your attention. And thank you for allowing me this great opportunity.