Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Character, Collaboration and Canada: A Conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland

  • Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership
  • |
  • Sep 29, 2020

This event was presented by Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership.

Before Chrystia Freeland was a Rhodes Scholar, an international journalist, bestselling author and Deputy Prime Minister, she grew up in the northwestern Alberta town of Peace River— a place she described as having infinite horizons. A place which shaped Freeland into the person she is today.

Freeland describes becoming a politician as simply a part of the path her life took. A path she may not have taken without her father, an Alberta farmer and lawyer. In the summer of 2013, when Justin Trudeau was trying to convince Freeland to run for election, she turned to her father for sage advice. Freeland recalls, “At the end of the day, he was the person who really shaped my decision. He said to me, ‘Canada has given you a lot as a young person in Alberta … You're being offered a chance to help your country. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't. But you owe it to Canadians, who have been so great to you and supporting you so much, to try.’” 

This notion of public service and love of Canada continues to drive the Honourable Chrystia Freeland as she embarks on her newest role as Minister of Finance.

Sharon Hodgson, Dean of the Ivey Business School, sat down with Freeland for an engaging virtual fireside chat focused on leadership and leader character amid these extraordinary times. The event, which took place on September 18, was presented by Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. With COVID-19 as the backdrop, Hodgson and Freeland discussed the guiding principles of leader character, her vision for the country, and the importance of humility and listening.

Here are a few of the many highlights from the engaging 80-minute virtual fireside chat.

Q) Sharon Hodgson: You have seen a lot of great leaders in your career. Of those that you truly admire, what commonalities do you see? And are there dimensions of leader character that unite them all?

A) Chrystia Freeland: A person could spend a lifetime reflecting on it and thinking about it, but I think I would start with three core qualities. The first one is humility. I think it is so important. A real danger for leaders is to start thinking that you're great. Even listening to the very kind words you said about me [during the introduction], it's important not to take that too seriously or too much to heart, lovely, though it is to hear. I think it’s really important to be humble and to hang on to that.

Next, I think it's important to learn from your mistakes and recover from them. To know you're going to make mistakes and to not dismiss them when you've made them but to say, ‘OK, what was the mistake there? How can I avoid doing it?’ But also not to be crushed by them and have the ability to move forward.

The final thing, and actually the most important, is whatever you're doing, know why you are doing it and really, really care. And so, if you are a political leader in a democracy, at heart you have to care about the people you represent and about your country —that has to be your North Star that you keep coming back to.

Q) SH: How would you describe your own leadership and how has it evolved throughout your career?

A) CF: I have come to believe that the most important quality in leadership for me is listening. To take the time to listen carefully and seek out a wide range of views before crystallizing my own point of view. This is definitely an evolution for me … I can be impatient and I can want to get things done, but I have learned to do this over time. And people close to me would say I am still learning to do it….

Another thing, and this is something I learned as a journalist, and, most of all as an editor, is that not acting can be as dangerous as acting. It's very easy when you're in a tough situation to think that the safest thing to do is nothing. Being an editor is very helpful in that regard because you have to make a lot of decisions. When I was working in London, I was appointed to my first big editing job as the UK news editor at The Financial Times. I remember my boss, the overall news editor, saying to me: “every day, you're going to have to make 100 decisions about new stories. Some of them will be right. Some of them will be wrong. In fact, probably 50% of them will be wrong. But the important thing is you need to make the decisions. You need to keep the paper going.” I think that was an important lesson and something that has stayed with me.

The final thing I think is important is to always remember, it's not about you. True, effective, positive leadership is about the team endeavour. It's about the country or the company or the newspaper.

Q) SH: You often have to deal with people who don't have the same moral compass or value system as you. How do you think about working with and influencing those people?

A) CF: This is an excellent and important question. I think that all of us face this, but, especially if you're a politician and especially if you're involved in international relations. For me, a key approach to this I learned from an interview I did with Indra Nooyi, once the CEO of Pepsi. She explained it as an attitude where you assume your counterparty is not trying to do terrible things to you, you assume there is positive intent. She said “look, we do not inhabit paradise. Not everyone has positive intent, but if you don't start off with an assumption of positive intent, it's never going to be there.” So her approach was start with an assumption of positive intent, have positive intent yourself, and if you're encountering not positive intent push back really hard. That is what I try to do.

Q) SH: What do you do to reinforce the spirit [of a team/teamwork] in challenging times, such as when one team member may act in contrary to a team's decision, or perhaps when the leader takes a position that you're opposed to? Are there elements of leader character that you rely on to get through some of these particular situations?

A) CF: [As a leader], you need to start with yourself and with an approach of being harder on yourself than you are on anyone else on your team. Where I think you become ineffective and kind of a jerk is if you are holding people around you to a standard that you don't hold yourself to. Also remember that you are flawed … There are the temptations and seductions of leadership. It's easy to become a bad person because you have authority and if you have a lot of people telling you how great you are. So I said to my team, please help me not to be a bad person, and please let me know before I become a monster.

Then you asked: “What do you do if someone does something that's wrong?” I think, let them know right away. Don't make too big a deal of it, just have a quick private conversation saying that's not how we do things and please don't do it again. But you can only do that, by the way, if you are clear about what people should be doing. As a leader, I have found that when people on my team were doing something that I didn't like, I would realize, ultimately, it was my fault for not having been clear enough about the goals and objectives.

And then your final question, which I think we all wrestle with in organizations, is what do you do if the boss or the group decision is not one that you personally agree with? I would say a few things there. First of all, always remind yourself that you may not have the ultimate monopoly on truth.  If the whole team decides to go in one direction and you thought it wasn't right, you might find in a year that it wasn't such a dumb thing to do. So, have a little humility there. But, on the other side, maybe you are right, and everybody else is wrong. It happens sometimes and I think then your duty is be very clear in private about your views and be sure that you have the courage to express them. But if you want to be part of the team in public —you've got to be on the team.  Now, if can’t, then that's okay, but then you shouldn't be on that team. I expect that kind of support from my own team and, speaking as a cabinet minister, I certainly believe I owe that support to the Prime Minister.

Q) SH: Your character at times has been questioned, some might even call it challenged in media and social media. How do you personally push past that?  And do you think that these types of attacks have an influence on whether people decide to go into public life – because politics is tough.

A) CF: I guess my answer to that would be that I try not to spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself and feeling “woe is me.” Yes, I work hard, but there are so many people in Canada who work a lot harder than I do. For example, the people who are cleaning our hospitals every day in a dangerous situation, people who are working in long term care homes. Those are people who work really, really hard and they get a lot less money and a lot less public support than someone like me. So sure there are some negatives, and there are some things that are hard about being a politician, but I think political leaders should be careful not to feel sorry for ourselves and have a real sense of perspective.

Q) SH: There's a lot of published information that says women have been more hard hit by the coronavirus than men. But there have also been some extraordinary examples in Canada and around the world of women in leadership that have really moved their countries to handle the virus quite well. So what's your view on that?

A) CF: OK, so there are two aspects to it. It is an indisputable fact that, in economic terms, the coronavirus has hit women disproportionately. And we have seen a fall in women's participation in the workforce and that is a real problem when it comes to Canadian economic growth. And look, it's just a reality, in most families that when someone needs to take care of the children, when someone needs to take care of the elders, that work falls disproportionately on women….we need to focus on making it possible for women to go back to work. We need to be really, really laser-focused on that.

In terms of women's leadership, I am personally very cautious about any kind of claim that women by virtue of their gender possess a particular set of leadership attributes. It might be comforting and flattering in one moment, but I can tell you be really careful because you will find the table's turned…if people often see women as more compassionate or more open, etc., soon someone's going to say, ‘hey, this is situation where we need someone who's tough and hard and firm, and you ladies have just been talking about how you're compassionate and open so guess you're not fit for leadership in these circumstances.’ I am always pretty skeptical about those broad generalizations. I would always prefer when we talk about admirable women leaders – and I think there are a lot in the world today – and think about what is it about this person? What do they do well and why?

Q) SH: What should the main mission be for the next generation of future Canadian business leaders? What actions can each individual take to contribute to the success of this mission in everyday life?

A) CF: Found a business. When successful, hire people and, as your business grows, grow it internationally. We are too small a country to just do business with each other. [But, if you] sell a whole bunch of ideas or goods around the world, keep your headquarters in Canada and keep those jobs in Canada. As you get bigger, don't sell your business to the first guy who shows up. Keep growing your business, keep it here, and pass it on to the next generation of leaders. If every Ivey student did that, we'd be in great shape when it comes to jobs and growth.

Q) SH: You have recently been tasked with addressing numerous regional tensions with provincial leadership - Alberta’s Jason Kenney, Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Ontario’s Doug Ford. Talk to us about how you navigate those tensions and balance the priorities of all stakeholders?

A) CF: So that is a long and complicated question. I think it starts with our conversation about positive intent. I really believe that all of Canada's premiers—and they were elected by Canadians too, just as our government was— I know that they share my desire to do the best job we can for Canadians. We may differ, and indeed we do differ on some, or maybe many, aspects of how to do a good job for Canadians, but I think it's important to start with an acknowledgement that our core objectives are the same. But I would also say that it's important to be clear about where the differences are; to not to be shy about admitting them but be candid, open and direct. You could say ‘these are the areas where we agree and make some progress together; these are the things we really disagree about and probably will never convince each other about.’ What I think you want to avoid—and I think it happens all too often in politics, in business, and just in human life—is you have a fight when you don't mean to, when there's no real disagreement. I think there are a lot of wins that you can find in many life situations, if you go in with an open mind and look for them.

The Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership and the Ivey Business School at Western University wish to thank the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland for generously sharing her time and leadership insights with the Ivey community.