What makes a leader?

Recently I was asked by a distinguished friend of mine:

Might you offer any explanation for how you so often obtained “leadership” positions, (Don, etc.)?

The question set me back on my heels as I don’t think of myself as a leader. The enquiry prompted me to consider the matter further.

The primary distinction among leaders is whether one is elected or appointed to the position. Although I once filed nomination papers for election to municipal council, I subsequently withdrew. Otherwise I have never “run for election”.

I was therefore appointed to the positions of leadership I held. There are important sub-categories of appointment which highlight refinement of the process. Some positions (the minority in number) I actively pursued (the closest undertaking to election); for example, membership on municipal committees (paying) or directorship of private corporations (paying). Others, I applied for; for example, service clubs or special interest groups (in which I had a stake). Some positions I was asked to assume; for example, business/commercial boards and associations and private trusteeships (charitable foundation). While I won’t suggest that my qualification for any of these appointments was without substance, I hasten to observe that throughout my forty-year career in a small rural town I had the advantage of being what is often labelled a “big fish in a little pond”. By saying this I do not disparage the value or quality of what I did or the people for whom I did it but rather indicate the opportunity which was afforded me. There can be no doubt that in a larger urban environment my chances of participating and advancing in similar venues would have been less frequent.  That said, I similarly acknowledge that in the smaller environments those with the benefit of special education or other training are expected to rise to the occasion. In the context of those spheres (opportunity and qualification) there are common elements of what are traditionally called “leadership”; that is, a belief in oneself, a desire to set an example, a mission to accomplish a goal or prove something (either to oneself or others). Sometimes the appointment was simply an agreement to accept the strict terms of engagement – my way or no way (which doesn’t of course speak to traditional values of leadership so much as wresting of control).

Finally, there are those positions of leadership which devolve by routine; for example, law associations or fraternal communities where there is an annual progression of stewardship bestowed upon the members.  Certainly there are in such instances opportunities for distinction but the entitlement is constitutional not personal.

My learned friend who asked me about leadership positions mentioned in particular my appointment as a Don of Devonshire House, University of Toronto.  This in fact is one appointment of which I am especially proud as I was not a graduate of the University of Toronto (normally a prerequisite).  Indeed when I submitted my application to the Dean of Devonshire House he emphasized that it was also considered imperative for the applicant to have been a former resident of Devonshire House (a celebrity I also failed). I was extremely anxious to obtain the appointment in question because my application for a similar job at my Alma Mater (Glendon Hall) appeared to have been derailed when the Dean of Glendon Hall mentioned parenthetically (and subversively I thought afterwards) that another applicant for the same position had indicated that because of my sexual orientation I might not be suitable for the task. The calculated observation succeeded to bring our interview to a hasty conclusion and I immediately retired to the Professors’ Dining Lounge to join the Head of the English Department for lunch as previously arranged. As it turns out I was offered the position of a Don at Glendon Hall but I declined it in favour of the offer from the Dean of Devonshire House. Parenthetically I confronted the chap who tried to sabotage my application to Glendon Hall.  He was (formerly) a friend.  He was later appointed to the bench in Ontario.  I never heard from him again and I can frankly bear the deprivation of his company.

As a general observation on the matter of leadership, I have to say that a consideration of the qualities exhibited by others whom I have known in similar positions leads me to conclude that there is a combination of intelligence, diligence, exactitude, compassion, empathy, humour and talent. I have known no one – absolutely no one – who abused a position of leadership for his own advancement or self-aggrandizement.  Even the so-called “paying” positions yielded such trifling amounts as to be negligible. There is certainly an element of duty in many of these positions of leadership; and an acceptance that the deference is afforded the rank not the person. This in turn implies the obligation to fulfill the symbolic attributes of the leadership position whether by conduct or appearance, effectively to “set a good example”.

Without exception I have withdrawn from every position of leadership I ever had, either by natural amortization or by design. This characteristic is notable because it recognizes the expiry of one’s utility.  I never wanted to be a “knife-and-forker”, that is someone who meaninglessly attends meetings and contributes nothing to the proceedings. Besides it is part of reasonable succession planning to pass the reins of authority to others (who may be both stronger and more innovative).

And finally I must acknowledge the influence of my late father who throughout his distinguished military and diplomatic career held positions of leadership as Wing Commander, Group Captain, Air Commodore and Attaché. I saw him in action; read about him; or heard about him from others, not to mention my knowledge of the medals he received commemorating his bravery and contribution. Unfailingly he set the tone of leadership to which I aspired.  In particular he is remembered for constantly uplifting others around him.  He did so with dignity and shared pride.