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Lessons in Leadership: 2020 Ivey Leadership Summit

  • Julia Campbell
  • |
  • Mar 6, 2020
Lessons in Leadership: 2020 Ivey Leadership Summit

Ivey Professor Gerard Seijts with Michael Friisdahl, President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment

Julia Campbell is an HBA2 student pursuing a dual degree with the School for Advanced Studies in the Arts in Humanities and a special guest blogger for Ivey Communications. She writes about the Ivey Leadership Summit, that took place in Toronto on Feb. 28, 2020.

It was both my privilege and pleasure to attend the 2020 Ivey Leadership Summit, hosted by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. I knew from the moment I entered the Aria Ballroom - drinking the best green tea of my life, I might add - that this Leadership Summit was going to be an unforgettable experience. I can safely say, upon reflection, that the day was even better than I had imagined.

The speakers of the day were:

  • Michael Friisdahl, President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment;
  • Cheryl Pounder, two-time Olympic gold medal winning hockey player;
  • Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz, Theranos Whistleblowers and Entrepreneurs;
  • Anna Maria Tremonti, Journalist, Podcaster and 17-season host of CBC’s The Current; and,
  • Stephen Virgin, Director of Character Leadership at the Canada Revenue Agency.

As a student and young woman who will soon leave the academic bubble and enter the workforce, I know I am only at the beginning of my leadership journey. To have had the opportunity to listen to such a wide-variety of accomplished leaders speak candidly of their own experiences was as eye-opening as it was inspiring. Needless to say, I learned a lot.

While each talk was chock-full of memorable advice, I have consolidated my learning, in true Ivey business student fashion, into five key takeaways.

Key Takeaway 1: The best conductor focuses on the orchestra, not the audience.

Working for a company like MLSE, it makes sense that winning would be on Michael Friisdahl’s mind. However, his definition of winning is about more than just championships: it’s about having a winning culture.

Friisdahl likened a good leader to the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor stands with his back to the audience, focusing on his or her people. Of course, he said, every conductor must have an understanding of what their audience wants, but that cannot be their main focus. Each part of the team – each section of the orchestra – has a unique role. It is the conductor’s job to help those people perform at their best. After all, when the team goal is met, individual goals are met, too.

Cheryl Pounder delivered a similar message: that it takes a village to win a championship. Pounder told us about her first tryouts for the Canadian National Team, where it was made very clear to her that she was invited as a learning opportunity rather than out of any expectation that she would make the team. She spoke of how she felt like she wasn’t regarded as a true competitor for one of those coveted spots, and believed that she didn’t fit the culture. Because of those feelings, she wasn’t performing at her highest capacity. She calls this the “human side of performance.”

Then, everything changed when one of the veteran players said, “get in behind me - watch me.” Suddenly, when someone took the time to help her in drills, and even sit with her at lunch, she felt valued and included, and began to perform even better than before. So well, in fact, that she made the team against all odds.

“If you feel valued in your role,” Pounder explained, “you will go to the ends of the earth for the people around you.” As a leader, it is your job to make the people who work for you feel like the work they are doing is meaningful. That is how you create a winning culture.

Thus, my first lesson is: A leader is only as good as her team, and that it is incredibly important to make sure your team knows just how valuable their contributions are.

Key Takeaway 2: Hold on to your integrity and perform when the pressure is on.

A huge topic of this Summit was integrity.

As Friisdahl said, “you have to win the right way and carry your ethics with you. You need to know where the line is.”

For Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz, the line was finding out Theranos would be providing inaccurate test results to patients, potentially leading to fatal diseases going untreated. For Pounder, that line is putting other teammates down in order to elevate herself.

Pounder describes integrity as every person having a “good side” and a “bad side.” The good side is your integrity, and your bad side is your insecurity and selfishness. A good leader must learn what makes them feel threatened and triggers them to lean towards that bad side, acknowledge those triggers, and then self-correct. “It’s always a choice,” Pounder said.

None of these leaders said that acting with integrity was an easy decision to make. In fact, they said the opposite. Pounder made mistakes during her Olympic training camp, when she left her teammates behind in order to demonstrate her superior skill. Cheung and Shultz didn’t speak out right away, hoping perhaps the red flags they were seeing was a misunderstanding. Having integrity doesn’t mean that you always make the right decision 100-per-cent of the time, but it does mean standing up for what you believe in and being genuine and authentic about your mistakes.

“At the end of the day,” Steve Virgin summarized it best when he said, “it’s about looking at yourself in the mirror and saying ‘how do I want to lead today?’”

Therefore, my second lesson is: A great leader frequently practices self-reflection in order to act with integrity when the pressure is on.

Key Takeaway 3: Leadership can be emotional, and that’s okay.

I have always grappled with the idea that a leader should not be emotional, but rather calm and collected. And while that approach is not necessarily incorrect, I realized that “emotion” and “leadership” are not mutually exclusive.

As I said in KTA1, showing people they are valued is important. A part of this approach is being in touch with your emotions: Friisdahl should feel something when the Maple Leafs lose; Pounder should be emotional when her team wins. Of course, leaders should be invested in the mission and their people. Empathy is one of the greatest strengths a leader can display.

However, as Virgin says, you should not take the emotion out of decision making, but you should take the toxic emotions out of decision making.

Friisdahl had a similar message: “This is a very emotional business, but as a leader, your reaction can’t be an emotional one. It has to be a thoughtful reaction.” You must take a step back when you feel yourself approaching those toxic feelings.

Pounder addressed this idea frequently throughout her keynote. When you are right in the middle of something, she said, you may not see the whole picture. It is essential for the leader to take a step back. “The impact you have on people is different than you know,” Pounder said, “so you have to be self-aware.” It’s okay to be emotional as a leader, but it is important to remember your emotions set the stage for the emotions of those you lead. “A good leader keeps a finger on the temperature of the room,” Pounder said, “It starts with you.”

Thus, my third lesson is this: be emotionally invested, but know how to step back and use those emotions to make a thoughtful decision. A good leader always has a finger on the temperature of the room.

Key Takeaway 4: Leadership is about communication, so ask the tough questions.

A key part of leadership, I have learned, is communication.

For Friisdahl, this means taking different members of his staff – from Zamboni Drivers to Ushers – out for breakfast to find areas of improvement. “We need debate and diverse inputs,” he said.  “We need to engage everyone. If you don’t involve people, they won’t give you input.”

For Cheung, this means listening to your staff. “Do you value when people speak up, even if it leads to extra work?” she asked. “Do you celebrate those people?”

Good leaders listen to their staff, even if what they say isn’t what they want to hear. She continued to say most companies today have pieces of the problem that led to Theranos’ downfall. The best way to prevent this, she said, is being clear about what is vision and reality, and being honest about what you have achieved.

For Journalist and Podcaster Anna Maria Tremonti, this means asking the hard questions. Often, she said, we don’t ask hard questions for the purpose of exposing deficiencies; rather, in order to better understand someone’s point of view. These conversations, although potentially difficult, help you fully grasp a situation much better than you would otherwise .

For all of these leaders, communication is essential. Thus, my fourth lesson is this: A good leader promotes open communication and transparency, listening to their people more than they speak.

Key Takeaway 5: Leadership is about courage: Fail, fall, and rise again.

Lastly, to quote Ivey’s Dean Sharon Hodgson, “great leaders are created over time, not born.”

In order to be a good leader, you have to have the courage and resilience to keep trying, learning, and growing, even – especially – after you make mistakes. In leadership you fail, fall, and rise again. You have to keep putting yourself out there and keep learning from your mistakes in order to improve. As Virgin said, leadership is like a muscle: You have to keep working it every day in order to build it stronger.

We spent the day learning about the eleven leader characteristics: Courage, Transcendence, Drive, Collaboration, Humanity, Humility, Integrity, Temperance, Justice, Accountability, and Judgment. What I learned from Tremonti’s keynote was that every great leader has character elements across all of these dimensions. A great leader must continue to work on all of these character elements, understand where they are deficient, and learn to control where they are in excess.

I also learned that leadership is neither complacent nor comfortable. As Pounder said, “you must get outside of your comfort zone to excel; you have to change when you are on top, not when you are failing.”

Thus, my final lesson is this: Leadership is a journey, not a state of being. Great leaders have the courage to confront their own shortcomings and continue to learn and improve, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

I am grateful for the chance to learn from these amazing leaders, and I look forward to using these lessons on my own leadership journey.