Skip to Main Content
Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Character-in-action: Five stories of inspirational leadership

  • Gerard Seijts, Kimberley Young Milani
  • |
  • Jun 7, 2021
Character-in-action: Five stories of inspirational leadership

Let's face it – it has been a frustrating 18 months for most individuals. In the midst of lockdowns and restrictions, social unrest, and economic uncertainty, one of the many enduring lessons has been that acts of leadership are consequential in a crisis. This may seem like an obvious statement when viewed through the lens of political leadership, but it is also true of individuals whose leadership is enacted within other arenas—large or small—and create a powerful ripple effect. We experienced it and we are confident you did too.

The importance of character in leadership has also been displayed on many occasions. It has rightly been said that if a crisis is a test of character, then not everyone has passed it. It has indeed been disappointing to see that the quality of leadership by many leaders in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors has been seriously lacking. But we get it – it is easy to sit on the sidelines and critique people when we are not in the foray having to make quick, hard decisions with either little or an overwhelming amount of information. We acknowledge, as Theodore Roosevelt brilliantly captured it: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds."  

Hence, rather than focusing on the failures in leadership we have all been witness to, we would like to highlight the truly good and inspirational – and, in particular, elucidate the role of leader character. This is because, to be frank, we consider the ongoing lack of attention towards and recognition of the importance of character to good leadership to be a critical shortcoming. By relegating character into the category of an "unmentionable topic"—like politics and religion—where it is not discussed with friends and colleagues because it is deemed a sensitive and personal topic, we fail to acknowledge this foundational component of leadership. While competencies establish what a person can do, character determines what a person will do. This creates a critical difference in a leader or individual's behaviour. We have also learned that character – what it actually is from an objective perspective – is not always well understood by individuals. However, through extensive research we identified the observable behaviours associated with strong, well-developed character and organized them into a comprehensive and accessible framework.

As many of us struggle with pandemic exhaustion as we wait to emerge into the light we are seeing at the end of the tunnel, we wish to highlight five inspiring individuals who have demonstrated good,  if not great, leadership in the face of significant hardship, grief, judgement and injustice. We hope they inspire you too.

David Malloy and the Progress Pride Flag at King's University College

King's University College, a Catholic affiliate college of Western University, raised the Progress Pride Flag for the first time in its history on June 1, the start of Pride Month. David Malloy, King's principal said: "The Progress Pride flag signifies our openness and support for those on the margins who we want to affirm are fully part of our place, which is a place for everyone." As a leader, this decision reveals Malloy's character as related to his humanity, sense of justice, accountability and, importantly, courage. He went on to state: "We want everybody, including members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, to know that they have a place at King's and will be welcomed with respect, compassion, and sensitivity."  

King's University College was the only Catholic institution in London, Ontario to raise the flag. Predictably, Bishop Ronald Fabbro of the Diocese of London said in a statement that he does not support this action as he feels  "it is a source of confusion" for many Catholics because it "shows support for political causes that are at odds with traditional religious beliefs." Bishop Fabbro is certainly not alone in this belief. Although the response to King's raising of the flag has been generally positive, the decision has attracted criticism from beyond the diocese. But like Principal Malloy, leaders with strength of character do the right thing even though it may be unpopular, actively discouraged, or result in a negative outcome for them personally. They show an unrelenting determination, confidence, and perseverance in confronting difficult situations.

Thus, we are also inspired by the words of Marvin Zuker, a former judge of the Ontario Court of Justice. He commented on the refusal of the Halton Catholic District School Board to fly the pride flag this June outside their schools: "Many of our younger generation have grown up in a world where there is more equality, more acceptance of sexual and gender difference, and they truly value it and are comfortable with it. Those of us who are older must do whatever we can to support them… so that we can not only hold onto those rights that have been gained but those rights we must continue to fight for."

Naomi Osaka at the French Open

Naomi Osaka is a 23-year old professional tennis player from Japan. She was first ranked No. 1 by the Women's Tennis Association in 2019 - the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles play. Osaka is also the highest paid female athlete in the world. She has a huge social media imprint and endorsements from brands like Nike, TAG Heuer, MasterCard, Nissan, and Louis Vuitton.

Osaka announced last week, just prior to the French Open at Roland Garros, that she would not participate in post-match news conferences, citing concerns about her mental health. Rather than applaud her candour and courage, or have empathy for her struggle with depression, her decision was met with scorn by many people in the media. She was deemed an "uppity princess" and accused of "setting a dangerous precedent" by withdrawing from tournament press conferences. A "dangerous precedent"—really? For doing the job she has relentlessly trained for— playing tennis— but not wanting to chat about it afterwards because it reinforces her feelings of self-doubt and anxiety? Regardless, Osaka was not deterred and stuck by her decision, only to be subsequently fined $15,000 by the tournament directors and threatened with harsher penalties. The following day, she withdrew from the tournament altogether to take a mental health break. In contrast to the response by the French Open and the media, Osaka's sponsors and the public-at-large supported her decision and recognized it as an act of openness, vulnerability, and courage.

Michael Phelps, winner of 23 Olympic gold medals, and the greatest swimmer of all-time has also been very open about his mental health struggles, sharing that no amount of winning staved off his depression and contemplation of suicide. Phelps responded to Osaka's decision and opined: "It's definitely going to be a game-changer in mental health moving forward….I hope this is the breaking point of really being able to open up and save more lives."  

Wes Hall and conversations about race in the boardroom

Wes Hall is the executive chairman and founder of Toronto-based Kingsdale Advisors. In 2020, amidst a worldwide outcry for racial justice, he launched the BlackNorth Initiative to catalyze social change, starting in boardrooms. Hall knew that for real, meaningful change to happen, society needed more than the generic statements and placating catchphrases issued by leaders in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors in response of Black Lives Matter protests. Such statements often claimed leaders and their organizations would not tolerate racism – but typically, there was no concrete action plan directed towards fixing structures and systems that continued to uphold anti-Black racism.

As such, Hall organized a coalition of Canadian business leaders to challenge and end systemic racism in the workplace. The BlackNorth Initiative asks corporate leaders across Canada to be accountable and make a personal pledge to lead their organizations through the implementation of policies and specific targets to eradicate racism. To date, over 500 organizations have signed up. The focus is on concrete actions because, as Hall explained, just writing a cheque and hoping the problem goes away was not going to work; rather, those actions reflect a lack of drive and accountability – two dimensions of character.

Now, almost one year later, the BlackNorth Initiative reports progress in their efforts to level the playing field for people of colour. But, as Hall wrote in his most recent Op-Ed: "Now is the time to redouble our efforts and move out of our comfort zone to challenge the status quo, especially in our boardrooms and executive suites."  All of us should be reminded that the half-time score is not always the predictor of the end result: complacency is a real enemy to achieving a goal … just ask the 2021 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Texas High School Valedictorian Paxton Smith

Paxton Smith was the 2021 valedictorian at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, Texas. She scrapped her speech approved by school administrators and instead delivered scathing rebuke of the "heartbeat bill" signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott on May 19. She spoke with righteous fire about what she called "a war on my body and a war on my rights" and those of other girls and women. In her speech, the 18-year old eloquently articulated that: "I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does. We have spent our entire lives working towards our future, and without our input and without our consent, our control over that future has been stripped away from us. I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter. I hope that you can feel how gut-wrenching that is, I hope that you can feel how dehumanizing it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken from you."

It took massive courage, passion and vigour, authenticity, and transcendence to put together that speech and deliver it. Further, Paxton tried to appeal to the humanity of others, while fully prepared to accept the consequences of her decisions and actions. The world is at a crossroads: women and gender rights; climate change; income disparity and poverty; hate crimes. Who else among young people will have the resilience, the optimism, and the initiative to stand strong and face the challenges of our lifetime? And who, amongst the older generations, will have the humanity, the open-mindedness and humility, and the conscientiousness to listen?  

The Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair

Indigenous leader Murray Sinclair is a former member of the Senate and a lawyer who served as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from 2009 to 2015. Senator Sinclair has been acknowledged for his "lifetime of work as a storyteller, jurist, advocate, educator, and leader."

On Thursday May 27, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation shared the tragic news that the remains of 215 children were found on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. In response, Murray Sinclair issued a powerful statement that deserves to be viewed by all Canadians. He shared his belief that Canadians should prepare themselves for the discovery of sites similar to the one in Kamloops – in fact, the TRC documented the deaths of more than 6,000 children as a result of residential schools. The true figure, Senator Sinclair said, "could be in the 15-25,000 range, and maybe even more." Think about that for a second. Those are numbers larger than many Canadian towns or university campuses. In fact, in 2020 Ivey had just surpassed having 30,000 degree alumni; imagine if half to 5/6 were just (or rather unjustly) gone. Just what if …

In the week since the news broke, Senator Sinclair has stated he has been inundated with calls from residential school survivors: "Hundreds of calls, often just to cry. I can hear not only the pain and the anguish, but also the anger that no one believed the stories they had told."

It is remarkable the myriad character dimensions Senator Sinclair is able to activate amid what must be his own grief and anger: his deep sense of interconnectedness with people, empathy and compassion, a sense of justice, composure, resiliency, reflection, and to retain a sense of optimism about a better future. But perhaps what is even more remarkable, is that these character dimensions are not only being displayed by Senator Sinclair, but by countless Indigenous people from coast to coast to coast, as they continue to stand their ground, seek justice, reclaim and revitalize their cultures and languages, and strive to have their nations not only survive but flourish.

Conclusion

Being a leader is less about the position and more about the disposition to lead. The disposition to lead is a choice – it is what allows individuals to rise above the fray and bring the best of themselves to their daily activities: at home, at school, in the workplace, and so forth. Through the examples above and on a daily basis, we see character "come alive" through the actions of individuals. Simultaneously, it is never too early or too late to begin the process of strengthening character and the behaviours that support it. When we look at today's ongoing crises—the pandemic, social justice, climate, and other pressing challenges—we see more than a compelling narrative as to the importance of leader character, but a resounding imperative. We hope, optimistically, that each of us will continue to consider how to "raise the bar" in our respective organizations and communities by recognizing, cultivating, honouring, and being individuals with good character. Canada needs it. The world needs it … now perhaps more than ever.

Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour, holds the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Chair in Leadership, and is the Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. He can be reached at gseijts@ivey.ca

Kimberley Young Milani is the Associate Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. She can be reached at kymilani@ivey.ca