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“I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.” ~~ John G. Diefenbaker

FRANK LEONARD -- Leadership requires credibility, trust, skill, experience and particularly a sense of timing


Most of the posts to my blog are about leadership – often they are lessons I’ve learned and practices I use.  This post will address an issue I struggled with: knowing when to lead and knowing when to follow.


I’ll admit that in my early years I wanted to lead for the sake of leading – executing a coup at recess to take over the grade five book club is hard to be proud of.  I wasn’t very good at sports or music so never had illusions of grandeur with those pursuits but when I grew up and found my passions – business and politics – I was always looking to take charge.

Yet wanting to take charge is very different from knowing when to lead.  Taking charge and marching off in a new direction will likely teach you the difference between leadership and arrogance – such as when you look over your shoulder to notice that no one is following you.

Leadership requires credibility, trust, skill, experience and particularly a sense of timing.

In my first months as Mayor I was still the same debater or ‘scrapper’ that I had been as a Councillor – pushing hard to have my solution or proposal approved.  Yet the city manager took me aside and said ‘sometimes you’ve got to let them wander into the mud before you can lead them out the other side.’ 


I learned that my ideas – my leadership – were most often embraced at the end of the debate rather than at the start.  So rather than my leadership being resisted, and becoming the issue, my colleagues appreciated being rescued when I knew when to lead.

This also meant that quite often the board or council found a solution or reached a conclusion without me needing to speak – that is I agreed with an outcome and followed that course.  Other times I’d make a suggestion that would fall flat and soon after I support someone else’s input that would be adopted.

By default, had I learned how to follow?

The answer to this question is ‘no’ because knowing when to follow also requires knowing how to follow and this is not a passive act. 

On a corporate board years ago, the Chair took me aside and said my colleagues were concerned that I didn’t speak up very often.  I replied that I was behaving as I had done in my political life and sat quiet when I tended to agree with a decision or direction. He suggested a better approach – and what was expected on a corporate board – was to still contribute to the discussion and add value perhaps by pointing out unintended consequences, suggesting next steps or helping to define what success would look like. 

This sound and sage advice taught me that following is not a default position but requires active participation.

Political motives had created a bad habit since I was picking and choosing what issues to become invested in.  This has no place in the private sector and indeed, if the community’s best interest is the goal – it shouldn’t prevail in the political domain either. 

My political life had become guided by ‘when to lead, when to follow’ -- yet it was the private sector that taught me the phrase should be ‘when to lead, how to follow.’

Frank Leonard served roles as a Councillor and Mayor of Saanich -- and Chair of the Police Board from 1986 to 2014. He chaired the Municipal Finance Authority of BC, was President of the UBCM, and while in business, served as a Director of the BC Chamber of Commerce, and President of the Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

Check out Frank Leonard’s website for information on Local Government and Consulting

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