Monday, January 03, 2005

Leadership means being there.

Some have suggested that Paul Martin's absence on a beach in Africa in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster is not an important issue. I disagree. This is Canada's disaster as much as anyone's. A handful of Canadians are confirmed dead, and well over a hundred more are presumed dead. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have relatives and friends in the affected areas. We're not experiencing their physical pain and deprivation, but we can "feel" it. Apologists say that the Prime Minister was in constant contact, and I have no doubt that is true. Effective communication of information and direction is not the issue. Effective leadership is the issue. Canadians are doing a magnificent job of responding to this disaster, but appear to be leading the government, rather than the other way round.

With today's connectivity, you can be just about anywhere on the planet and maintain effective communication. Leadership is not just communicating and giving direction. It is being there and being seen to be there, in person and in charge, if humanly possible. It was, and those being led expect it and miss it, when it doesn't happen. As capable and qualified as deputies may be, no real leader wants to be anywhere but "there", when things go wrong. Paul Martin was not there. For that matter, where was Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan?

I had a couple of personal experiences of not being there, and both broke my heart. The first involved the loss of a pilot on my squadron and the second was Gulf War I. In 1990, about two-thirds of 416 Squadron was returning from a six-week deployment to Germany in our role of rapid reinforcement to NATO. I was relegated to riding home in the back of a "bus". About a hundred of us were a couple of hours out of Toronto on a Lufthansa 707 from Frankfurt, when I was PAed to the cockpit. I was given a message to contact the Wing Commander as soon as we landed in Toronto, and I stewed in foreboding until I got to a phone on the ground. The Wing Commander, Dave Jurkowski, told me that one of our pilots had been killed in a crash earlier that day. As a CO, that is the worst news you can get. I knew what would be happening, as I had been involved in many such circumstances in other roles. And I knew that the presence and leadership of the CO, for the troops and for the family, was very important. The only good thing was that I was there for the troops in Toronto. We were collectively stunned, and frustrated that we were stuck many hours away from home, while our squadron was suffering. None more so than me, and talking to my very capable deputies in Cold Lake didn't help much. It was another seven long hours before we made it to Cold Lake around midnight, and the wake in the Mess had wound down. The family's PMQ was dark, so I didn't go in and see them until the next morning. The next day, we had a muster parade in the Squadron and talked about what had happened. I then took a Hornet up to fly over the crash site. I had the DCO get everyone outside the hangar, as I had a message for them from 'Trots'. I went by the front of the hangar at Warp 8 and four-foot-six (Brit term for somewhat low) and did a disappearing act in a vertical roll. It didn't change anything, but it made us all feel a bit better, and "Dad" was back in charge.

The second time was when 416 Squadron deployed to Qatar without me, as I had given up command two weeks before Saddam invaded Kuwait. Nothing much I could do about that, but it still broke my heart. With no disrespect to the man who replaced me, many of the troops felt it, too. The last hand that each of them shook when they left Cold Lake was mine, and I was in Ottawa to greet them when they came back several months later. To add insult to the squadron, and through a series of wrong-headed decisions, their real CO was not allowed to command them and fly with them during Desert Storm. He performed valuable service in the Gulf in a staff role, but I know that broke his heart, as well. The squadron did a great job without me, as I knew they would, but not being there was the biggest disappointment of my career. One of my little treasures is a photo that was sent to me after the war ended. They were all partying and decorating some of the buildings with spray paint. On one of the buildings they had painted "Hawnski is here!". It brought pride and regret at the same time.

Anyone who has been in a leadership role in military or para-military organizations will have similar experiences. Leadership is more than a title and picking up a phone to give direction. Leadership is being there and doing everything that you can to be there. Anyone who doesn't understand that is not a leader. Paul Martin is not a leader.


Blogger The probligo said...

We had a similar situation here in NZ.

Apparently our great and noble leader Auntie Helen was on a skiing holiday in Norway. It was not until 48 hours after the event that she learned of the tsunamis.

Does this mean, as hinted in your post, that leaders and people of importance can never take a holiday?

Personally, I believe that any leader is entitled to a holiday. Matters not where, matters not when.

The real issue is what is done after learning of the event...

11:58 AM  
Blogger John the Mad said...

Bravo Zulu! A very good post and along the lines of what I have been pondering. There is no substitute for a leader's presence in a time of crisis.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

I think being a leader, especially a political leader, means much the same as being a parent - you subjugate your own needs for the needs of the people you represent. This could very well mean no vacations; or it could mean scheduling such a vacation at a time when all of your backup team is in place to step in if there is a problem. And leaders of countries are never truly on vacation. They should be reachable at any time, anywhere - that is the price one pays for success in that position. There is a man here in BC, in Surrey, who lost over 30 family members in Sri Lanka; his wife lost a similar number of family members. He has spent the past week and half gathering medical supplies and preparing to leave for his home country, leaving his wife and two young children in order to bury his dead and help the living. That is a leader - he has weighed the options and chosen what is for the greater good instead of the good of the self.

That Martin allowed so many of his senior cabinet people to be away from Ottawa at one time is poor management; even in the small family-based plant nursery I work at, we make sure all positions have enough coverage when we are arranging holidays. That means that not everyone gets Christmas off - welcome to the real world.

7:48 PM  

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