A Few Words on Leadership

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This past weekend I spoke at the Student Leadership Conference at the University of Saskatchewan, my alma mater. It was a huge honour to speak to this group, and a lot of fun to be back on campus. I thought I’d share with you the speech I prepared, as a bit of a pick-me-up for Monday morning!

 

If thirteen years ago, when I was sitting in the back of this lecture theatre in Classics 101, you had told me that I’d be up here speaking about leadership to a room full of eager and brilliant young students, I wouldn’t have heard you. Because I was either sleeping or doodling penises in the margins of my notebook.

It feels a little strange to be on this stage talking about leadership. To be labeled a leader.

It’s a word I’ve been called before, but it’s always felt a little bit like being a kid dressed up in his grandfather’s suit jacket. Endearing. Funny. But at the end of the day, I’m still flapping around with sleeves that are way beyond what I can reach.

So briefly, a bit about my background, or how my passion lead me to where I find myself today.

I grew up in a small Saskatchewan farming town, in a family of boys who grew up to be engineers and architects. And from the time I was old enough to hold a pen, I wanted to be a writer. Then, I decided I wanted to be a film writer. Maybe a director. I really liked writing, but I also was fairly excellent at yelling.

After dropping out of film school, I came back to the U of S where I got a degree in English. I specialized in Medieval literature. Because if there’s one thing the world needs more than a film school drop out, it’s a Medieval English major. WITH a minor in Religious Studies.

I say this all tongue in cheek, of course. I am a huge supporter of and believer in arts and humanities education. The world needs us.

It’s just that the practical farmer in my head (and also my mother) kept wondering what I was going to do with my schooling. She urged me to go into education, which is a fine vocation, but children terrify me. I mean, I have four of my own. TERRIFYING!

But it all changed when I stumbled into a local nonprofit organisation about a decade ago.

Something clicked.

I loved writing. And, I was pretty decent at yelling. But I was passionate about DOING.

When I was a kid, I was always DOING something. When a kid was being bullied, I stepped in. And yelled. When our high school didn’t have the capacity to keep their drama program running, I stepped in and ran the program for four years. When a support worker’s union went on strike, I skipped school to go picket with them.

I had a coffee cup in my principal’s office. I was never sent there. Rather, I’d stop in to talk about some changes I’d like to see made in regards to … whatever I decided needed to be changed.

I had a pretty clear sense of what I believed, and wanted to do something about it.

So the idea of being able to DO SOMETHING for a living was pretty exciting. That first something was working for an organisation that advocates for literacy and adult education. Then, politics. Then, Parkinson’s disease – before which I had never known anyone with Parkinson’s but now I know thousands, right across the province. Then, local artists and musicians, especially youth, who deserve access to not only listen to great music, but have a chance to play on a stage that is all their own.

My biggest problem was that I wanted to do a little too much.

So three years ago I started my own company, Colludo. Colludo, for any lovers of Latin in the house, means Play Together. I think it’s a beautiful image… to think of a community of people playing together to make the world a better place.

It’s pretty amazing. Every day when I sit down at my desk, I get to DO SOMETHING with organisations right across North America.

Yesterday, I helped a small town hospital in Ontario fund cutting edge equipment that saves patients’ lives. Earlier in the week, I helped adult learners right here in Saskatoon get matched with a tutor. The week before, I taught hundreds of doers like me how to create a strong fundraising program that focuses on relationships and storytelling. This Christmas, I helped underprivileged youth in Memphis, Tennessee get the support they need to get into the best colleges right across their country.

Okay. So I didn’t literally reach into a man’s chest and restart his heart. I didn’t physically tutor hundreds of adult learners. I didn’t walk in to 500 organisations and completely rewrite their fundraising strategy. I didn’t write the cheque that sent a young Memphis student to Stanford.

But I did something that made these things possible. Too often, our passion for doing is muted, paralyzed by all the things we cannot do.

This is the biggest challenge I face. My passion drives me to do something, but all too often I simply cannot do enough. I have more fire than torches, so to speak. More ideas than time. More empathy than working knowledge. And at the end of the day, balancing all of this drive to do with the fact that I am a mother of four, a wife, a daughter, a sister… because these are the things that make me want to be better.

But the biggest lessons I have learned about doing something that matters?

Embrace your inner amateur and fiercely seek community.

Embrace your inner amateur before you embrace your inner leader.

Amateur means someone who loves something. Who does something for the love of it. The best leaders aren’t individuals who do things to be the best. They do it because they love it. They are fascinated by it. They’ve decided they want to do something, and they do it. This is what makes people look to them as leaders.

Fiercely seek community. Let it change you, teach you, shape you, but never let it harden you.

Seek community that empowers your vision. This is the community that will support you and challenge you. Ask questions of them, and of yourself. Be comfortable when they ask questions of you. Embrace a culture of lifelong learning, not just in an academic sense, but in a community, spiritual, emotional, holistic sense.

Too often as we seek outwardly and define our boundaries, we build walls where we need bridges. We become rigid when we should seek to be gentle, with others and with ourselves. Gentle is not timid – for those who can be fiercely gentle are the greatest of leaders.

And in those moments when you feel like that kid in the oversized suit jacket, remember there’s always room for someone willing to roll up their sleeves and do something that matters.