From the battlefield to the boardroom

In his new book, Rick Hillier shares his lessons on leadership

From the battlefield to the boardroom

Fred Chartrand/CP/ Photograph by Andrew Tolson

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As a man who believes that poor leaders have their uses—in the way they make what not to do so blindingly clear—Rick Hillier certainly found a target-rich environment during his career in the Canadian Forces. The former chief of defence staff, Canada’s highest-ranking soldier, Hillier, 55, left the armed forces in 2008, and now, a self-described “failure at retirement,” is fully occupied with philanthropic work, writing, and providing strategic and leadership advice for various companies. But he hasn’t forgotten what he calls the Forces’ dark decades, particularly the budget-squeezing ’90s, and the panicky, money-driven decisions they spawned, like selling the military’s eight Chinook helicopters to the Dutch air force. Years later, “nothing pissed me off more,” Hillier writes in his new book, Leadership: 50 Points of Wisdom for Today’s Leaders, than having to be ferried about in Afghanistan by a Dutch copter with its painted-over maple leaf still visible underneath.

But the most “vivid lessons I remember,” Hillier says over the phone from St. John’s, where he’s chancellor of Memorial University, came from the way some officers responded to the situation. “That senior officer who apologized to his men after his command ended that he’d spent too much time in the office? When I heard him say that, I promised myself I would spend half of every day mixing with the people under me, looking them in the eye and listening to them.”

Hillier experienced enough of that sort of thing to declare, “I learned two-thirds of anything I ever knew about leadership from bad examples.” (Hillier’s second-greatest source of what not to do is gleaned from his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, mired in 40 years of futility that make the Forces’ dark decades look rosy.) And what Hillier learned—that the people under you are the be-all and end-all of leadership—is what he says makes his army lessons applicable to private business. Sure, the Canadian Forces may, at bottom, be in the business of killing people, and they do lose their own members to violent deaths, “but other professions face life-or-death situations or, if they don’t, have dark days, and how do their leaders handle that?” says Hillier. “Nothing impacts an organization’s success or an employee’s life, military or civilian, like the quality of leadership. People remember, when they’re 95 and they’re on the front porch in their rocking chairs, how you made them feel, good or bad.”

He makes a convincing case, as long as readers bear in mind that the advice is coming from a man who describes himself as “the worst guy in the world to have working for you.” He’s kidding, but at times the prime ministers for whom he worked, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, might have thought—say, when Hillier was publicly demanding more money for the Forces or contradicting assertions by the Prime Minister’s Office that the Kandahar mission would be completed in 2011—that he was being merely factual. Thus Hillier’s brief, punchy chapters in Leadership include injunctions on begging forgiveness (that is, after acting without authorization), using the soapbox your office provides (appealing to public opinion over the heads of your bosses), and the virtues of “peeing on the electric fence” (nothing teaches like bad experience). The latter contains a lovely story about sweating the details. In West Germany, in charge of moving 59 tanks across the country, Hillier neglected to ensure they all had a locking pin securing their gun barrels, which turned out to be one way to learn just how many trackside telephone poles a single free-swinging tank barrel can take out during a 24-hour train trip.

There’s plenty of shrewd observation in the book as well. Never waste a crisis, Hillier advises. Just like the Canadian Forces’ much-admired response to the Red River flood of 1997 put them in the public’s good books in a way they hadn’t been for years, all crises—whatever their costs—have a way of bringing desired change far faster than hard, incremental slogging. And one of the great temptations for any organization, the former general warns, is to mistake risk aversion for risk management. The latter is only prudent, but the former prevents even the most necessary action. So don’t try to have 100 per cent assurances before launching a campaign, military or commercial—the demand for certainty ensures only stagnation.

Any new leader, Hillier calculates, will face an organization in which the vast middle, some 70 per cent, will be amenable to whatever their marching orders are. They will be bracketed by two extremes, each with about 15 per cent of employees, and both fissured down the middle. The first group will divide between those who have already seen the changes the organization needs to flourish, and can hardly wait to implement them. They will turn out to be the firm’s most valuable workers. The other half, adrenalin junkies in love with change for change’s sake, are useful but risky employees. The other 15 per cent divide between conscientious burnouts, people who have seen too much ineffective and even harmful change. They too will prove to be among the most valuable, for they are the ones who will make sure routine, core business is still accomplished during the upheavals to come. The other half are foot-draggers more committed to obstruction than anything else. Hillier’s advice is to get rid of them.

No matter the particular bullet point Hillier makes, he always brings the subject back to people. His half-days mixing with other ranks was not to communicate information to them. “They already knew 98 per cent of what I’d said or was going to say,” he points out. “When I met them they were there to judge my commitment and my credibility. A good leader is always trying to attract new people, inspire them, equip them for their jobs and reward them for success: get that right, and you can’t go wrong.”

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