Canada’s Former Top General On Leadership

“You have to respect people. If you think you’re omnipotent – if you think you’re the big cod – you’re going to be wrong. If you think you know it all, people are not going to respect you.”


Leadership is about people and a leader’s job is to enable ordinary people to succeed, Rick Hillier, formerly Canada’s top soldier, told delegates attending CropLife Canada’s GrowCanada convention recently.

He told his audience his advice on the art of leadership would apply to anyone in any situation where they have to work with people, no matter if they’re the CEO of a corporation, the leader of a boy scout troop or even the cowboy everyone looks to for leadership at a branding or cattle drive.

“It’s not about an organization, or a process or technology,” said Hillier, in a wide-ranging presentation consisting of amusing anecdotes and insights delivered in the plain-spoken, rapid-fire, off-the-cuff style that has made him the most popular Canadian military figure in a generation.

“It’s not about structure or rank or appointment, it’s about people. If you forget that, you will set yourself on a course for failure.”

The key to success on any mission or organization, he added, is not finding “superheroes,” but instead motivating and inspiring the ordinary men and women involved to do whatever needs to be done.

“Ordinary Canadians, who because of your support, inspiration and motivation and recognition of them, become capable of extraordinary things because they then become dedicated themselves,” said Hillier.

It’s not as hard as it sounds, he added, for the simple reason that it is the nature of most people to want to succeed.

“Informal” leaders – those not occupying traditional positions of leadership – such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. have been the greatest source of change in human history.

“Concentrate on people. If you’re a leader, try to do your job of enabling them so well that when they are 95 years old and sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch of the retirement home – in their Depends – they’re going to flash back on a life well lived and a life of incredible satisfaction,” he said.

“You have to respect people. If you think you’re omnipotent – if you think you’re the big cod – you’re going to be wrong. If you think you know it all, people are not going to respect you.”

Leaders also have to make tough decisions, he added. If a “stupid idea” comes up from the ranks, often a leader can neutralize it before it can do any damage simply by delegating it to a committee, then allowing it to die a natural death over time.

“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” he said. “In the army, we call it a ‘combat multiplier.’”

For a leader, keeping a brave – and optimistic face – no matter how serious the situation might be, is critical to success.

A leader who fails to keep up appearances, appears to have lost faith in the mission, and looks like the weight of the world is on their shoulders, will quickly poison the atmosphere of the whole organization.

“You influence people with the image that you present, and perpetual optimism is one of the most powerful tools of a leader.”

Canadians, for some reason, have the uncanny ability to spot a sliver of darkness in an otherwise totally blue sky – and then become totally fixated upon it, he said.

Hillier, who throughout his military career in Afghanistan and Bosnia has witnessed both the heights and depths of human experience, is constantly confounded by the uniquely Canadian failure to see the abundance of good in their own country compared to the rest of the world.

“Being perpetually optimistic as a leader in Canada, has got to be the easiest thing in the world. We live in this awesome country – most Canadians have never stopped to think about that – with a level of luxury, affluence, rights and privileges, and a rule of law that is just a minimum standard for our behaviour,” said Hillier.

“If we don’t measure up, we have the most professional police force and judicial system to help us get back on track.”

Compare that to Afghanistan, he noted, where chaos and corruption have allowed fields of marijuana and opium poppies to flourish, with the proceeds of the illicit crops infecting every level of their society, from the farmers, the police, the judiciary and government officials.

That, and a staggering level of poverty and lack of services means infant mortality in the country stands at 22 per cent – almost one in four – and 17 per cent of mothers die in childbirth.

“Our health care – maligned as it may be – is a powerful system that actually looks after us from cradle to grave,” he said. [email protected]

About the author



Stories from our other publications