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20/20 Series: What makes a great leader?

For the inaugural story of Alberta Venture’s 20/20 series, we talk to former prime minister Kim Campbell about what makes a great leader – and what makes Alberta’s unique

Jan 11, 2017

by Robbie Jeffrey


Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell
Photograph Ryan Girard

It’s the morning after Donald Trump won the U.S. 2016 presidential election, beating by the sparest of margins the woman whose destiny in the White House seemed foretold. The Right Honourable Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only female prime minister, is on vacation in France, watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. “I know how disappointed you feel, because I feel it too,” Clinton says. But Campbell, a vocal Trump critic throughout the campaign, feels more than just disappointment. Campbell’s brief tenure as PM – she served four months after former prime minister Brian Mulroney retired, before losing the 1993 election to the Liberal Party – was marked by some of the same attitudes towards women that haunted the American campaign: dismissal, disbelief, misogyny. Campbell’s mother raised her to believe she could do anything, and exposed her to female role models like Charlotte Whitton, a feminist and mayor of Ottawa, the first female mayor of any major Canadian city. “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good,” Whitton famously said.

Campbell feels solidarity with Clinton in defeat. “That’s one of the hardest things about leadership – maintaining the right tone in the face of loss,” she says. “The combination of respect for the system but also a belief in what you’ve been doing. I was there myself.” The timing is coincidental: Alberta Venture was publishing a piece on leadership and I wanted to ask Campbell about her role as founding principle of the Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the University of Alberta, which is dedicated to training students for a world needing creative, flexible and innovative leadership. But the election results – and the state of disbelief that followed – has changed what was supposed to be a conversation about leadership in the abstract to one about specific, real-world applications. Better than any seminar speaker could provide, Clinton’s downfall is a leadership lesson in real time.

Jean Chrétien, who led the Liberals to defeat Campbell and her Progressive Conservative Party, once summarized Albertans by saying, “Those people out there are different.” Coincidentally, that quotation opens Aritha van Herk’s 2001 book, Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta. “Albertans are regarded as creatures from the swamp, Neanderthals, figures of fun, fools and daredevils, lunatic Bible-thumpers, gun-toting renegades, and crazy oilmen who really don’t appreciate their tolerated position within this great nation,” she writes in its introduction. “And when those same marginal heretics get annoyed and start agitating for respect from the Centre of Canada, they’re branded as cry-babies and whiners and illogically well-off hillbillies. It’s a tough position to occupy.” Albertans might find it remarkable that in most of the world, “maverick” doesn’t have the same self-exalting connotation. Elsewhere, a maverick is someone whose unruly dissent is unjustified, whose rebellion needs to be quelled. But from the badlands to Lake Athabasca, “maverick” is a badge of honour – a quality we expect from our leaders. (Calgary’s Glenbow Museum has a permanent exhibition devoted to mavericks, in honour of van Herk’s book.) So why does Alberta choose rebel-leaders? Is there something about Alberta that engenders a combative leadership style?

After I spoke to Kim Campbell, I met Doug Griffiths for coffee. Griffiths, who has been a teacher, one of Alberta’s most recognized politicians and a best-selling author, hails from Coronation, the kind of small town Albertans love to mythologize. He grew up in the country, farming grain and raising Black Angus cattle. “Growing up on a farm and in a small town, it taught me when to work with other people and when to work alone,” he says. “If you’re out baling 30 miles from home and something breaks down, you’re not calling someone to fix it – so you fix it. And that’s what leadership is about. You can’t help but learn it.”


Doug Griffiths
Photograph Ryan Girard

Griffiths the MLA ran against Alison Redford for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2011 and later served as her minister of municipal affairs. He resigned from politics in 2015 to dedicate himself to 13 Ways, an organization he’s based off his book, 13 Ways to Kill Your Community. If anyone can speak to a uniquely Albertan style of leadership, he’s one of them. But he turned the maverick stereotype around on me: “I wouldn’t describe Alberta’s leaders as mavericks,” he says. “If someone was going to say what Albertans expect from their leaders, I’d say it’s to be moved – they want them to be authentic, they want to see them shaking hands or to run into them at the grocery store.” Think of some prominent Albertan politicians, he says. Ralph Klein, Stephen Harper, Ed Stelmach… Not exactly flamboyant characters. “Yet when they’re on the national stage, I think that’s what makes them feel like mavericks, because they’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Griffiths says. He says Ralph Klein, later mythologized as macho and unapologetic, said “sorry” more than anyone he’d ever met. “We pick someone who’s a normal, hardworking, everyday person, who stands up for our province in national and international relations,” he continues. “Then Albertans think, ‘Not only is he ordinary, but he’s fighting for me.’ He’s a maverick, not to Albertans, but to them – the national and international politicians. So when Albertans pick a leader, they end up with a maverick.”

Take Premier Rachel Notley and the Climate Leadership Plan. Despite the cries of opposition, Notley is no radical: the bulwark of her economic agenda is supportive of the energy sector. But being thrust into the position of premier has made her a pariah. The right pillories her for not supporting the energy sector enough, while the left criticizes her for supporting it too much, even though her centre-left position has given Canada its only NDP government. Despite her best efforts, Notley has been made into a maverick: to her detractors she’s a dangerous outlier; to her supporters, a brave one. When she takes Alberta’s concerns to the national and international stages, she’s a maverick to her opponents because a governing NDP is an experiment in socialism, likely to end in catastrophe; to her supporters, she’s a maverick for bringing to these stages a bold style of leadership, and a willingness – in the case of the Climate Leadership Plan – to enact one of the world’s most progressive plans to curb global warming. And there is something radical about a leadership style that takes responsibility for its province: long criticized for its inaction on global warming and hostility to critics of the oil and gas industry, we now lead the world. What’s more “maverick” than that?

“Albertans think, ‘Not only is he ordinary, but he’s fighting for me.’ He’s a maverick, not to Albertans, but to them – the national and international politicians.” – Doug Griffiths

Few names signify leadership in Alberta like Peter Lougheed’s. He built the Tory dynasty that would reign over the province until Notley’s orange crush, and fought to defend Alberta on the national stage. And, as the creator of the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, a pool for resource revenue, he clearly had Alberta’s legacy and future generations in mind. Campbell says the Peter Lougheed Leadership College, whose first batch of students will graduate this spring, is meant to reflect that same kind of long-term, visionary thinking. “Our students are in every discipline, and we don’t know what they’re going to do,” she says. “The challenges of mobilizing people to an end can come in many different parts of your life.” But one thing that stood out to her about Lougheed was his mentoring of the politicians who’d follow him. He famously mentored Alison Redford, and fought to avoid in-fighting when he ran his caucus and cabinet. “As somebody who was himself admired as a leader, he was also a teacher of leadership, and people who knew him and worked with him carried the lessons he taught them and they can articulate them in ways that would be very gratifying for him,” Campbell says. “But it’s really a measure of his success. One of the best leadership tools is to have the opportunity to work with someone who’s a great leader. You learn by watching. It’s one of the most powerful tools in human society, and yet we don’t often get the chance to do it.”

Griffiths emphasizes this, too. “You can’t be a good teacher if you’re not a good student,” he says, reminding me that his years teaching elementary and high school students weren’t so dissimilar from working in government. (“The only difference is you know the Grade 4 students will grow up,” he says.) And this gets to the core of what both Campbell and Griffiths believe makes a great leader: there’s a sense of responsibility that has to be present in everything they do. Griffiths says leadership is never about the leader; it’s about helping others. Some pursue power, or positions of power, but true leadership acquires it almost by accident. “When you seek power, you don’t necessarily know where you’re taking everybody,” he says. “If you’re only talking about what’s wrong and getting everybody mad, you’ve spent no time on how to make things better and where you’re going to head to. Leadership’s about the future, not the past.”

Ah, the future, clouded as it is by the American election results. From the middle of what feels like an unending recession, with the far-off future of our oil and gas sector in doubt, Griffiths and Campbell have similar predictions. They fear that amid the downturn, and all the vitriol directed at Rachel Notley and the NDP, the province is vulnerable. Don’t think Trump can’t happen here, they say. “That’s why I hope the students in our college will have a broad sense of the moral obligation of leaders to be tolerant, curious, humane and constructive in what they do,” Campbell says. “We teach about emotional intelligence, but that’s a double-edged sword – it can manipulate people.”

“We used to go to church and ask for miracles,” Griffiths says. “Now, we demand from our politicians, ‘I want this fixed now!’ That’s where we’re at with leadership. We have people saying they’ll fix every problem, as though we can legislate ourselves into utopia.” But the biggest misunderstanding, he adds, is that the impact of a politician accounts for only about 10 per cent of the outcome – the other 90 per cent is up to us. Leaders don’t promise to solve every problem at the drop of a hat; they empower people to fix things themselves. Alberta’s history is full of brilliant, compassionate leaders who led us to where we are today. To prosper in the coming decades, we’ll have to decide what kind of leaders we want to take us there.

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2 Responses to 20/20 Series: What makes a great leader?

  1. Fred Ziffel says:

    “If you’re out bailing 30 miles from home and something breaks down”

    If you were on a boat, you would be bailing. If you were on a baler, you would be baling.