"Conservatism is the worship of dead revolutions."
Clinton Rossiter

Good morning from YVR where I begin the last week of travel before the Christmas Break. Leadership Notes will return from alisdairsmith.com in the New Year. A short note this week, to wish you all a wonderful and festive holiday season, and a new year filled with warmth and peace, inside and out. This year feels like I’ve been talking about the future, a lot. And I hope I have. We are in the midst of a great turning. According to the Economist, about 2.8 billion people have smart phones. By year end 2016, that number will be 4.5 billion. Given that the first iPhone came out in June of 2007, we are in the midst of a dramatic change, in both positive and shadow ways. What will your job look like? What will your team look like by the end of 2015? 2016? But perhaps the more important question for us all as leaders is, who will I be at the end of 2015? I want to thank my amazing colleagues at CUSource and Credit Union Central of Canada, who were the very first to receive Leadership Notes, and who encouraged me to keep it up. I look forward to our new working relationship. And to each of you for your continued engagement with Leadership Notes, the emails I receive, the questions and comments that spark more dialogue and your kind remarks when we meet in person are received with great gratitude. Thank you. We’ll start the conversation again in the January 5, 2015 edition of Leadership Notes. Until then, have courage, hold on to what is good, return no one evil for evil, support the weak, and honour life.

I was part of a wonderful conversation over dinner on Monday evening with a group  of people being introduced to the new Bishop of New Westminster, Melissa Skelton.http://www.vancouver.anglican.ca/AboutAnglicans/TheDiocese/BishopMelissaSkelton.aspx  It was a festive evening, with a collection of very interesting people ranging from former provincial cabinet ministers, senior bureaucrats, for profit and not-for-profit executives, with a couple of facilitators thrown in for good measure. And in our midst was  Chief Bobby Joseph,  I urge you to have even a short look at his bio, http://www.sfu.ca/dialogue/programs/blaney-award/joseph-biography.html


I have had the honour of meeting him once or twice in the past, but Monday evening was the first time we were able to speak at any length, as we found ourselves standing to one side of the larger group in a quiet corner of the room. Our conversation focused, not surprisingly on reconciliation and on recent events in the US and elsewhere. I should mention, that because the Bishop was there I was wearing my clerical collar. It was therefore profound for me to be talking with Chief Joseph, especially given the history of the church (across denominations) and the residential schools.  And it was not profound at all, as we are simply two human beings doing the best we can in this place and this time. History, the present and the promise of a reconciled future; it was a wonderful evening.


In the midst of the conversation, Chief Joseph said, ‘you know, I’ve been thinking about this time of year, and that people just seem to become a little better with each other.’



What a thought for us all. What might it take for each of us, in our private, public and corporate lives, to become just a little better with each other? I hope that as we move closer to the holidays and the bringing in of a new year, new hopes, new possibilities, that we might heed the words of an Elder for his people, for Canadians, and for peoples all over the world, and become, a little better with each other.

We awake this morning to the sad news of protests, many turning violent, in the wake of the Grand Jury’s decision not to charge the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I was reminded of a timely conversation I had with Durwin Foster http://www.durwinfoster.com/ a counsellor I met some years ago while working with a mens’ group at the Cathedral where I work in my other job.. www.thecathedral.ca 

Durwin and I met to get caught up, and the subject turned to ethics. We were talking about the difference between “the law” and “ethics”. The difference is often even described about the law in the phrase, the ‘spirit or the letter of the law.’ The business world is filled with examples of us making decisions based on the letter of the law, and not the spirit. And we do so at our peril. When we see an unjust decision, even when we understand the logic behind the decision, even when we see the letter of the law, we will often respond based on our understanding of the spirit of the law.  

And as leaders, standing behind the ‘letter of the law’ is a place that saps your credibility.

Now, I do see the value in logic and the letter of the law, especially when it protects innocent people from mobs of other people who ‘feel’ an injustice has been done. People attacking Mosques, or vandalizing Moslem owned stores for example are reacting based on their emotional response to a perceived injustice. The letter of the law then is absolutely vital for a healthy society.  And all of that said, particularly in the business environment, sticking only to the ‘letter’ of the law in our decision making creates unnecessary rifts in the team.

So here are three suggestions to help build your ‘spirit of the law’ decision making:

1. Think about the kind of decision you’re making. Is it a decision that the team could make themselves for instance. Do you have to make all of the decisions? If not, let the team, or others on the team make some decisions. It will empower them, and add to your credibility.
2. Seek input, and make sure you use the input. Very little angers a team more than being asked to contribute to a decision and then seeing it have no effect.
3. Understand the history of the team and where they have come from. If for example your predecessors were autocratic rulers as leaders it may take some time for the team to become comfortable with making more decisions on their own. Or, if your team was managed by a caretaker manager, who’s main mission in life was avoiding conflict, then you may need to work on the context, help your team understand the need for a more ‘by the book’ style, at least for the time being.

May this week be one of growth and learning and working with the ‘spirit of the law’ in our teams.


Our work continues. There is a lot of fear around us, and yet, for the most part, people keep on doin’ what they’re doin’. I mean this in two ways, first that we keep slogging on despite some of the craziness. The poet Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes in her beautiful poem, The Invitation, http://www.oriahmountaindreamer.com/ 

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

And there is a second meaning in my comment about us “keeping on doin’ what we’re doin’.” And that is the oft quoted, and usually attributed to Albert Einstein, line, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, expecting different results.” In the midst of some of the craziness out there, does it not seem that we’re all too often doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results? And I don’t just mean big global issues like terrorism and climate change. I mean the small but very consequential elements in our daily lives.

For example, we know in our heads that we need to have a difficult conversation with someone, but all too often we rationalize ourselves away from the conversation by having an ‘emergency’ that suddenly comes up, or we say ‘its not the right time’, or we think that if we make a joke, they’ll surely understand the point. And we know in our hearts that we still need to have the conversation. But we keep avoiding it, expecting a change each time.

Or we find ourselves being the outlier, the one person in the room who doesn’t appear to agree with the group. What is the word we all too often hear from ourselves? “Whatever.” When you hear that word coming out of your mouth (assuming you’re not 14 and your parents are stupid anyway), ask yourself, “what am I expecting to happen by saying this?” Am I hoping that they’ll get my point? Am I hoping that they’ll see how much of a martyr I am? Instead of ‘whatever’, why not say something like, “I disagree, I think we need to….. If it is the will of the group to do it, I can live with it, but I’d appreciate a couple of minutes to make my case.” This may not result in you moving the group, but I can guarantee that you’ll have a better chance at change than simply saying “whatever.”

If you’re not happy with the situation in which you find yourself, what do you need to change to make it work for you? In the end, what happens in our world is up to us.


Good morning from a cool and clear Vancouver. It is the first taste of winter, and people are bundled up as they head out for school, work, or even a run.

I attended the Remembrance Day ceremony here in Vancouver yesterday. It was very moving. There were thousands of people there and the sniffles I heard were possibly from colds, but I think not. I am very conscious of war. In part because of my time in the reserve artillery (2nd Field Regiment in Montreal and 30th Field Regiment in Ottawa) as a young man, and because of my father’s service in the RAF during WWII. My father spent much of the war in India and what is now Myanmar. His squadron flew Liberator bombers stripped of all their weapons into enemy airspace to drop supplies to guerrilla forces behind the lines. For much of each sortie they were completely at the mercy of any enemy fighters or anti aircraft weapons around. He didn’t talk much about the war.

And yesterday I was struck by the word ‘courage.’ We remember the men and women who had the courage to go ‘over the top’ of a trench, or land on a beach in Dieppe or Normandy, or the courage of the women running towards the sound of gunfire to assist a dying soldier by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa. And there is a courage in speaking up, especially as a lone voice, in a meeting. The courage to have ‘that’ conversation with a colleague, the courage to say ‘no’ to someone, understanding that it will cause some pain for both of you.

You and I have likely not spent 2 years in an unarmed rickety aircraft flying over enemy territory, and for that we might be eternally grateful. But you and I as leaders show courage in the everyday decisions we make. The decisions that affect the individuals and the team with whom we work. And they are counting on us to have that courage. The courage to stand up for our principles. The courage to speak up. The courage to hold each other and ourselves accountable.
So in honour of those men and women we remember, and the men and women today who count on us, let’s practice our courage. 




My friend Jane Osler http://www.pjosler.com/ sent me a note yesterday with this link about St Crispin’s Day http://www.strategy-business.com/blog/Ending-the-Battle-between-Leadership-and-Management?gko=e3de6&bt_alias=eyJ1c2VySWQiOiIzMDk0NTkwNCJ9 which fell at the end of October. As you’ll see in the link, this is the day made famous by Shakespeare’s Henry V as Henry rallies his outnumbered soldiers against the French at the beginning of battle. Here are two clips; the first is the most recent film version with Kenneth Branagh in the title role (the clip is 5:41 but worth every second) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yZNMWFqvM . The second is for the Canadians among us with the late and missed Leslies Nielsen from the final episode of Due South and his very funny version of the same speech  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjPj-5AYVg0 (about 1:08)

The blog Jane sent looked at the difference between leadership and management, and I appreciated the blogger’s point about the questions how and why. For me though, the St Crispin’s Day speech (Lawrence Olivier’s is also brilliant) inspires me around competency. Whether you watch Branagh’s or even Nielsen’s version, you are watching craftspeople working with an amazing tool, the speech itself. You and I will never be as good as Branagh with this speech, but I suggest you try  reading it yourself a few times. Here’s the text with a ‘modern’ version (and you have to click next page to get the whole speech). http://nfs.sparknotes.com/henryv/page_184.html Then read it out loud, you can do this in the privacy of your own bathroom if you wish. Feel the words as they roll off your tongue. The speech is a poem, and after a few times of reading it aloud you’ll feel the rhythm in the lines. And you’ll find that you actually can do this with practice. In fact if you read this speech aloud every day for two weeks before work, you’ll find at least two things happen; first, you’ll get better and better at the speech and you’ll find that the words actually start to inspire you. Next time you find yourself facing a difficult challenge you might even hear your inside voice say something like, ‘and gentlemen now abed in England shall think themselves accursed.’ And when that happens you’ll know you are gaining a competency.

 Masters like Branagh and Nielsen themselves can inspire us, but they would be the first to tell you, it’s all about practice. You and your team can do pretty much anything you put your minds to, you just need practice to become competent. 


 So this week, let’s practice.