Leadership demands commitment, says Rick Hillier. He should know.
The gruff, tough-talking former military man is probably the best-known Canadian general in decades. A favourite with troops of all ranks, the Newfoundlander was loved while in office for his plain language and his bond with individual soldiers, sailors and air force members.
He held senior posts with the Canadian Forces during some of its toughest times – in Bosnia and Afghanistan overseeing thousands of troops serving in the world’s hot spots. He spent three lively years as Chief of Defence Staff, Canada’s top military job, between 2005 and 2008.
On April 9, the 98th anniversary of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s famed attack on German positions at Vimy Ridge, Hillier spoke to a packed house at the Barrie Campus of Georgian College. His appearance was part of the Georgian College President’s Thought Leadership Series.
The address was broadcast live to additional audiences at Georgian’s six other campuses.
Hillier told the crowd that leadership is all about people. Among the keys to success is to deliver “personal, visible leadership”, he said. That’s why when he visited military men and women serving in the field, he made time to shake as many hands as possible and to look each one in the eye.
“Let me tell you about leadership versus management,” he said. “Leadership is about inspiring people.”
He showed a slide of a solider in full field gear slogging through the heat of Afghanistan – helmet, goggle, vest, weapons, water and batteries – all weighing in at about 110 pounds on top of his body weight.
“It’s my job to inspire that guy. ”
While Chief of Defence Staff, Hillier aimed to build a chain of trust and confidence that ran all the way from the solider at the sharp end of the fight back through the soldiers behind him to the support troops in the field and ending at Canadian Forces headquarters in Ottawa – not that Hillier was so keen to spend his days behind a desk there. He was much happier out visiting his men and women in the field.
“Leadership is about inspiring others – it’s your number one job. You want people to bring their minds to work as well as their bodies. When you get them to bring the minds along you have teamwork that can change the world.”
Creating a true sense of inclusion, he said, is critical. Ask people for their opinions and advice, and use it when it makes sense. Share the praise when your plan goes well but take the blame when it doesn’t, he advised.
He also blasted bureaucracies that create bloated plans and strategies but fail to deliver on promises. He worked hard to rebuild pride in the military following the debacle of certain troops’ actions in Somalia in the 1990s. Crucial to that was prying loose government accounts to better outfit regiments with personnel and equipment. One highly visible was the delivery of the first of several huge C-17 heavy transport planes.
“People need to see you in action,” Hillier said. Purchase of the giant jets showed ordinary men and women of the forces that he meant what he said when he promised to give them tools they needed.
Hillier also liked to help keep those serving overseas better connected with life back in Canada. Those efforts include the arrival in Afghanistan of the Stanley Cup, along with some star NHL players and Canadian musicians. Hillier made sure that the hockey trophy toured not only the main base but also made it way to front-line troops.
The event was sponsored by Georgian International and TD Bank Group.
In the past few years, Georgian has hosted such other high-profile speakers as Dragons’ Den stars Arlene Dickinson and David Chilton, as well as Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield.
The next President’s Thought Leadership Speaker Series on June 19 will feature Georgian alumnus, host of The Amazing Race Canada and Canadian Olympian Jon Montgomery.