Luminary Leader Series: Bob Rae

“Leadership is not a permanent position, it changes, it evolves, it depends on your situation in life.”

IMG_7238Bob Rae was the dynamic and inspiring speaker at the University of Guelph’s Luminary Leader Series last night.  It was a fantastic evening as current students, recent graduates and alumni of the Master of Arts – Leadership program joined professors and staff to celebrate leadership and hear Bob Rae share his own expertise on the topic of leadership.

Well known in the public sector for the controversial “Rae Days” during the recession of the 1990s, the 67 year old, Rae has spent a career in politics both with the NDP and the Liberal Party.  A Rhodes scholar, a lawyer, contributor to the Globe and Mail and an author of 5 books, he shared that we learn a lot more from our mistakes and had the audience chuckling when he commented “that might be why I am so smart”!  He spoke provided an example of a venture company that ensures the team knows that “failure is an event, not a person” and the importance of trying, failing, learning and figuring it out.

Rae climbed off the stage and came down to speak at the level of the audience because “this is where leadership happens”.  He used no speaking notes yet delivered a planned and deliberate speech full of his own personal examples and stories about other leaders that had both positive and negative effects on teams, countries and the world (such as Wayne Gretzky, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler).  He shared that although he has never take a course on leadership he has learned much through his personal experience and his observations and that leadership is critical to transformational change.  He shared “Bob’s homemade definition of leadership”:

“Leadership is the capacity to create a vision or strategy and persuade others of the need to share this vision and then make it happen”.  Leadership includes:

  1.  The ability to create a vision

  2. The ability to persuade

  3. The ability to implement.

He told the crowd that leadership is not about being the smartest in the class or the most talented, it is not about performance or self regard but that it is about working with others and doing the right thing.  He shared the challenges he experienced when he introduced Rae days during the recession in he nineties – which many still talk about – and how taking unpaid days saved jobs.  It was not easy but he still feels that this was the right thing to do yet did admit that it could have been done better. Leadership is impacted by the climate and changes happening in the world as well as transformation of public opinion.

“there is a tension in leadership between being a little ahead and anticipating where things are going to go”

Rae also spoke about the importance of listening.  He said that the best political leaders were are not afraid to come to the people and listen.  These leaders did not put on airs and he walked the talk, presenting on the floor with the rest of us instead of speaking above us from the stage.

He was asked about resiliency and admitted that he had been very sensitive to criticism when  he first became involved in politics.  He learned to ignore some comments without be isolated from public opinion.  He stated that it helps to have a strong sense of values and know why you are doing what you are doing.  He told the group that he had dealt with mental health issues early in life and it is important to know that “you will never be happy if you only worry about yourself and will be happy if you are contributing to something bigger than yourself”.  He also talked about perseverance and that nothing can be accomplished without persistence.

He graciously answered questions about resilience, social media and the leadership needed to work with Northern communities.  After he finished speaking, he returned to his seat, leaned over and kissed his wife who was at his side which was a poignant end to an inspiring evening.

I would be remiss if I did not mention my wonderful friends who shared I the evening with.  They are a remarkable group of strong, supportive and successful women who I am proud to have as my friends.  We share the experience of our days in residence, hard work during (and after) the program and a robust commitment to leadership.  I am thankful to reconnect with members of my cohort at each leadership dinner hosted by the University of Guelph.


Dominique, Lisa, Susan, Karen, Sylvia, Joy

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