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Saturday, September 26, 2009

About responsibility

Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie at the Ontario General Contractors' Association Annual General Meeting. (Photo courtesy Janis Rees)

The Ontario General Contractors' Association invited Major-General Lewis Wharton MacKenzie to speak at their annual general meeting in Ottawa. Maj.-Gen. MacKenzie established and commanded Sector Sarajevo as part of the United Nations Protection Force UNPROFOR in Yugoslavia in 1992.

With totally inadequate resources, and a confusing (and irrational) U.N. command structure and mandate, MacKenzie structured the media to bring in humanitarian aid and some semblance of order to this chaotic region. According to Wikipedia, his observations are controversial, especially his dispute about claims of Serbian genocide in the region. At one point, opponents accused him of taking money from Serb organizations -- but he responded that his usual speaking fee is $10,000 minimum.

I'm not sure if the OGCA paid Maj. Gen. MacKenzie this fee (but it is quite possible, given the AGM's budget), making the opportunity to listen to him at lunch something of a special, exclusive treat as there were perhaps 100 or so in the room.

He indeed is a great speaker, and his points about leadership and management ring true. Here are some points from his presentation that stick in my mind.
  • "I learned more from the three or four bad leaders I had, than the good ones."
  • "Leadership is not management. Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things."
  • "If you have someone who can do both right, don't let them go."
  • "The definition of leadership is getting people to do things they don't necessarily want to do, and have them enjoy the experience."
He also offered some simple tips:
  • "Be yourself".
  • Practice LBWA -- Leadership by Wandering About. "The more senior you are, the more you are trapped by your in-basket."
  • Listen. "I discovered most people who work for me are smarter than me. I listened, implemented their ideas, and gave them the credit -- and I was forever associated with the idea. They got the credit, I got the credit, and the organization was better."
  • "If you know nothing about the people working for you, now one thing, what's their passion -- something that really turns their crank -- if you know that, that's the key, and that will allow you to get through to them."
  • "Set difficult but achievable objectives."
  • Have a sense of humour and be approachable.
And, to me, his most important suggestion:
  • "Accept responsibility even when you are not responsible, for the good of the organization."
This concept stopped me in my tracks but is so important I would like you to consider its fundamental importance. MacKenzie said at a public inquiry into an awkward racist incident in Somalia, several officers said: "Yes, I was responsible . . . but" and ended up spending a long time explaining and justifying their situation.

MacKenzie suggests that you need to truly accept 100 per cent unconditional responsibility for your organization, no matter what or who really might have mucked up. This can be painful and superficially may seem unjust, but if you don't, you can never truly lead it. After all, if you are not responsible, who is?

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