Jack Layton’s lessions for IT leaders

Everyone, it seems, has read the letter by now. And everyone, with the possible exception of Christie Blatchford, seems to have been moved by it. The question is, does it take the exceptional circumstances of Jack Layton’s death for great ideas to make themselves felt?

There’s no denying that part of the power of the late NDP leader’s final message to colleagues and everyday Canadians comes in part from the tragic narrative arc of Layton’s career. To slowly work through a tough political climate to rousting the Liberals and taking official opposition in Parliament, only to have to step down soon afterwards due to a terminal illness, is the stuff of a TV movie, if not legend. But putting aside tears just for a moment, there are also elements in Layton’s letter that would be powerful coming from any leader, even a CIO or an IT manager. Consider these attributes:

Balance vision with humanity: Layton’s letter could have focused primarily on politics and the future of the NDP. No one would have been surprised if he had decided to keep most aspects of his health private. Instead, he immediately follows up his recommendations for the political party with words of encouragement to others who may be going through similar circumstances, and underscores the importance of time with family. This is absent in most corporate missives, despite the sometimes excessive demands placed on staff. It’s hard not to like a guy who can combine the personal and professional with such ease.

Look backwards as well as forward: Most leaders focus on what is to be done, with an occasional admonishing undertone about what still hasn’t been done. Layton back-ends his call for action on the part of the NDP by recalling its recent successes, its core values and the time spent with members of his caucus and the team. This is a far more holistic way of rallying people around a common cause.

Be targeted but inclusive: He could have written multiple letters – to the NDP members, to Quebeckers, to all Canadians. And only the intended recipients might have seen each letter. Instead, Layton offers specific messages to each group but allows all of us to see what he wanted to express. To often business leaders target messages to departments or employees and leave them wondering what has been said to others. There is an openness and transparency in Layton’s letter which builds considerable trust across multiple stakeholders.

Remain pragmatic but positive: After the last federal election, many pundits suggested the NDP’s win had a lot to do with the fact that Layton and his team focused less on attacking rivals and more on discussing a hopeful future for all Canadians. The letter sticks with this approach, acknowledging a list of challenges that young people, in particular, will need to tackle, but this is treated as much as an opportunity to build upon an already great foundation. In the enterprise, we sometimes talk as though we’ve been living in a long nightmare from which we will never awaken.

The last line is the one I keep seeing posted on friends’ Facebook statuses: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” And if that’s possible, why not start with changing your leadership style to something that sounds like this?

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