Skip to content

Why encourage people in the middle of the pack and those who are dead last?- from my archives

October 4, 2017

Who’s cheering for the steady Eddies? Who’s applauding the kid who comes in last? What’s wrong with our approach when we celebrate the winners and discard all the rest?

The last two weeks were the local cross-country races for my daughter. I thought I’d dust off this post as it still applies.


Remember the Seinfeld episode where George worries about worlds colliding? Well, fair warning: here’s a post where leadership, parenting, ranting and sound advice collide.

encouragment and perseveranceLast Friday, my 8-year old son participated in a city-wide cross-country track race. I went to encourage him and to help out his teachers; but what started like a little parenting side-trip turned into a profound leadership observation with implications for businesses and communities.

I noticed that all the parents and classmates gather at the start line of the 1km race for pictures and encouragement and then they race to the finish line to applaud their child’s achievement. Of course, that’s natural and it’s great parenting.

However, after the first group of front-runners crosses the finish line, the applause and encouragement is not as loud. People drift away with their kids as the middle group and the ‘stragglers’ finish up. So, after my son’s race, I deliberately found a stretch in the middle of the course where there was no one shouting encouragement. I stayed past those nipping at the heels of the pace bunny and I waited for the group in the middle and, especially, for the kids who were at the end of their group.

I shouted really simple things like “You’re half-way there”, “You look awesome”, “Nice stride” and “You can do it.” What I saw amazed me. Just the presence of someone there made them perk up, start running again, lengthen their gait. I saw kids literally lift off the ground (once their face stopped saying “Who is this lady and why is she shouting at me?”).

I started thinking about how everyone cheers for the winners; but what about the kids who had the courage to sign up for something outside their comfort zone? Who’s cheering for them and the courage and perseverance they’ve displayed? There’s a huge crowd around the “winner”. The “winners” will be encouraged to keep going. The “winners” will be invited to special training to improve even more.

Where’s the crowd around the courageous? the brave? the tenacious? The chubby kid who’s trying? The kid with Downs Syndrome or with less visible challenges?

I just did a mini-triathlon in September and, hardly a natural athlete, I know what it’s like to be at the very back of the group. I know what it’s like to have to walk many parts of a race. I also know what it took for me to sign up, to train, to show up. Of course,  they tell the kids “run your own race” but that’s hard to do when you see a big group of kids pulling away in the distance. It’s still discouraging. I know what it’s like to pull out of a race in junior high because you’re just so far behind you don’t think you’ll finish and you’re embarrassed.

I admit, I got a little pissed off that parents were leaving as soon as their kids’ race was over. Why was I alone cheering on these kids in the lonely stretch? Yes, their teachers were at the finish line. Yes, I had the luxury of time on my side that day but aren’t they all our kids? Don’t they all deserve to have someone there to cheer them on – whether they are first or last? Especially if they are last? Otherwise, they  just won’t come next time.

In our community, where else can we encourage the kids who are struggling?

In our workplace, are we cheering on the superstars and drifting away when the “average” workers – the solid, consistent people – come through because a “win” is exciting but a finish is expected?

Are we encouraging those who are struggling, especially when there are specific challenges they are trying to overcome? An ‘average’ worker who is keeping it together despite being torn-apart because a parent is dying (I have been there too). An ‘average’ worker who is still delivering despite a marriage falling apart. Do we recognize the extraordinary efforts it sometimes takes to be “average”?

I’m just suggesting that we try to be there for everyone who’s in the race – literal or figurative – because when we encourage others – in that lonely stretch where people are struggling – people will literally rise off the ground, lengthen their gait and hear the crowd cheering for them. They will return to try again. They will start to see themselves differently. They may never be first but maybe they’ll be faster, stronger, happier and more confident.

Are you an ethical leader? Can an architect be unethical? How about a sausage maker? 8 questions to ask

August 16, 2017

It feels like social values are crumbling. South of the border, we see more division than vision. The melting pot is bubbling over and threatening to crack. Locally, hateful messages were spray-painted on the roof of a local church. There is a new meanness in the air. My stomach turns every time I watch the news and frankly, it’s difficult to write anything that does not seem grossly insufficient.

Leaders across all sectors and at all levels urgently need to denounce hatred and re-establish norms of basic civility, at the very least. Norms in any organization – from a company to a federal cabinet- are not vague “do the right thing” statements. They are not group think. They are behaviours that reflect the ethics of the organization. Acceptable behaviours are modelled and transgressions are punished.

This is not “soft stuff, ” unaddressed ethical transgressions erode trust, productivity and social cohesion. Could there be anything more important?

Ethical practice needs to be at the centre of decision-making to establish norms, to serve as a tool for value-creation and risk management, and so everyone in the organization can live with integrity.

See 10 ethical decision rules to bullet-proof business

A recent visit to The Evidence Room at the Royal Ontario Museum reminded me that


The door to the Auschwitz gas chamber was designed to swing out because a crush of bodies would prevent it from swinging inward. There is no door handle inside the gas chamber. No one would leave alive.

no profession is exempt from an ethical duty. Featuring “reconstructions of three key components of the Auschwitz gas chambers—a gas column, gas-tight door, and gas-tight hatch—and over 60 plaster casts of architectural evidence, such as blueprints, contractors’ bills and photographs,”* the installation shows that Auschwitz was carefully planned as a Nazi death site for a million Jews.

Not intended for more innocuous purposes, as some Holocaust deniers claimed, Auschwitz was deliberate, architectural murder. The construction of Auschwitz was “the greatest crime ever committed by architects,” according to historical architect Robert Jan van Pelt who presented evidence at the Irving v Penguin books libel trial  in 2000.

The greatest crime ever committed by architects”
— Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt, exhibition principal and University Professor, University of Waterloo School of Architecture 


Casts of architectural drawings and blueprints show the deadly purpose of Auschwitz at The Evidence Room exhibit.

While most businesses today are not planning mass genocide, all organizations can examine their leadership behaviours, their motives, their practices and question who benefits from their actions and who is hurt by them.

From “undisclosed meat ” in sausage to growing C-Suite scandals, leaders would be wise to ask themselves the following 8 questions and to act on any shortcomings.

  1. What am I really building?
  2. Is it for the greater good in the long-term?
  3. Am I modelling integrity, honesty and civility?
  4. Are my actions kind?
  5. Would I be willing to see others in a similar position take the same actions towards me?
  6. Do my actions respect the rights of others?
  7. Do I deal decisively and harshly with people who violate ethical norms to send a clear signal it won’t be tolerated?
  8. What have I done stop injustice?

As always, thank you for reading. I recognize that I am woefully short of doing justice to The Evidence Room exhibit and the trial behind it. I hope it piques your interest enough to find out more.

I welcome your comments and wish you a happy, peaceful and positive end to your summer.


* From the ROM website:


Book Review: The Confidence Code: The science and art of self-assurance, what women should know

July 31, 2017

The Confidence CodeLast week, prodigious reader, blogger and my good friend, Susan Gibson, was very kind to invite me to submit a guest post for A Year of Books Blog. It was a nice throwback to the years we were MA students together, discussing our latest journal articles and theories of leadership.

Check out her blog and my review of The Confidence Code: The science and art of self-assurance, what women should know by American journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.

If you are a woman, read it. If you are a parent, teacher or coach, read it. If you are an employer, read it. Then… share it. I can’t recommend it enough.

15 minute video: your crash course on inter-organizational trust

July 13, 2017

Worldwide, we have a macro-level problem of distrust towards our institutions. We need macro-level solutions.

Five years ago, I graduated from my MA Leadership program at the University of Guelph. Having always been fascinated with trust and trust-building, I focused on trust at the firm level – rather than interpersonal trust- and how organizations can build trust between them for greater efficiency and better results.

Here’s a video of my research presentation to my classmates. Yes, the video and audio quality is quite poor but the content is pretty good and it’s faster for you than reading  more than 100 journal articles! Enjoy.

The best fatherly advice my LinkedIn connections ever received

June 18, 2017

A few weeks ago, my LinkedIn connections shared the best advice their Dads ever gave them. While Dads come from all educational, professional and cultural backgrounds, some advice, like the importance of teamwork, is timeless and universal. And, as Dr. Sylvain Charlebois pointed out, the source of the advice really makes a difference.

Many people will give us advice and there’s no shortage of tips on the Internet, but we will only see a few people model and enforce it daily for decades. That’s pretty special.

Happy Father’s Day to Dads everywhere. If you are lucky enough to still have your dad, be sure to tell him you love him. Tell him about one specific piece of advice he gave you, the behaviour that brought about and the impact it has had on you personally and professionally.

From the collected wisdom of my network:

Be accountable. Be responsible. Avoid issues before they arise.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAw2AAAAJDY0N2RhNDU5LTMyODctNDRhYy04ZTMzLTJkYzQzNWQyZTI2NgLynn Vanschaik wrote: “My dad, now 97 years young. Gave me advice back when I was 16 years old. … He said: “Drive likes it’s not paid for” and “if you break it, make sure you fix it before you bring it home and tell me,” and he meant it. To this day my cars have been tidy, filled with gas, air pressure checked and maintenance done in advance to avoid issues or breakdowns. Life is more seamless and effective with this great guidance.”
Lead by example every day. Value the power of your team.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois shared:
Advice no.1: Leadership is important, but team leadership is even more powerful. Quite obvious, really.
Advice no.2: Life can be messy, but always lead by example, every single day, no matter what happens.”
Not earth-shattering material, but it made a difference coming from Dad.
Be loyal. Serve the people you lead.
36adc40Bruce Manion observed: “My father simply said that leadership was all about loyalty to the people you were leading. It was not about you but about them. What flowed from that concept was that your people would do their very best when they knew that you had their backs and go to the wall for them. He also told me to never work for a leader who did not adhere to that principle. I have worked both for leaders who followed that principle and for some who did not. I was always at my very best in the former situation and did not stay long when the latter situation prevailed. My father was Jack Manion, a long-time senior public servant renowned for his leadership and ethics. It would be very interesting to get his take on what passes for effective leadership these days.”
Work hard. Believe in yourself.
Josée Touchette, LLL, CPA, MBA, ICD.D valued her Dad’s encouragement: “My father told me I could be anything I wanted, as long as I worked hard and was true to my values . He probably never realized it, but he was a feminist. And I am a very lucky woman to have had such a loving father who believed in me.”
Get all the information, analyze, then decide.
Matthew Bondy, M.A. quips: “It’s almost irritating to write this down because I’ve heard it so much over the years, but here it is: ‘Get all the information, separate the wheat from the chaff, and then make your decision.’ It’s so easy to over-complicate things. And when you have tough decisions to make, it’s helpful to focus on a solid, simple decision-making *process* that organizes information in a clear, sequential way.”
Respect everyone. Focus on team success and recognition.
Anne MacKay lives up to what her Dad taught her. She writes: “My dad, Ken, doesn’t talk so much about his approach but he demonstrates beautifully. First, he treats everyone the same with the same degree of respect. Second, you succeed as a whole – if one of your team needs help, you give it and you share credit with all the folks who made progress possible. Great lessons!”


Go team!
Kimberly Leach also had a Dad who was a proponent of teamwork. She says:” at a young and impressionable age I remember my Dad telling me that “teamwork” gets the job done ! No truer words said.”
Thank you to today’s contributors. I’ve seen many of you apply these very lessons and the world is better for it.
You can read all about my Dad’s leadership advice and please share what were the most valuable lessons your Dad taught you. They live on long after Father’s Day!
P.S. I don’t know why the formatting appears wonky in this post. I assure you, I have left plenty of spaces between paragraphs. I could spend the the next few hours trying to figure it out, but I have to make dips for a party this afternoon. Family first. Formatting second.

10 leadership lessons from my Dad

June 13, 2017

My Dad, Robert J. O’Rourke, passed away on April 20. In his last days, more than 60


Make magic and enjoy the ride. Cheers Dad!

people came to the hospital to express their love and to say goodbye. A dozen more sent email, video or voicemail to let him know what he meant to them. Over the course of those final days and the celebrations that followed, the essence of the man emerged. It was no surprise to us that it was remarkably consistent over 76 years, across the country and across all aspects of his life.

While his friends and family grieve, his lessons live on. Isn’t that the essence of leadership: how people behave when the leader is not there?

Here are just some of the things my Dad taught me about leadership and life.

#1. Live your life with integrity.  Early and often my Dad reminded us that you want to live your life in such a way that you can like the person in the mirror at the end of the day and always be able to look anyone in the eye. A proponent of “what goes around, comes around,” he encouraged us to do our best, to be kind and to make amends when we fell short. It didn’t mean being a push-over. It meant having self-respect and compassion, and doing the right thing especially if it was tough.

#2. Take care of your family. In the early days of my Dad’s career he juggled three jobs, but I don’t remember him ever having an issue with work-life balance. There was ample time to shine shoes on Sunday night while watching The Wonderful World of Disney on TV. He and my mom cooked amazing meals together and hosted hockey nights, Boxing Day open houses and tons of parties for my sisters and me. He coached softball. He was up early to give me a ride to work and up late to make sure I was home by curfew. He was always happy to play cards, make you a sandwich or have a serious conversation. He loved and supported my mother through years of serious illnesses and lots of ups and downs. They were a real team. Many people remarked that “Bob’s girls” and the strength of his family are his greatest legacy.  You will have many jobs in your life, but you only have one family. There is no better investment.

#3. Build lasting relationships. I grew up on a magical little street. The men played softball together. We went to brunch with neighbours after church. People babysat one another’s children. And, for better or worse, everyone on the street knew you and who your parents were – so don’t even try to sit on the curb at the bus stop! (Oh yeah! Tough neighbourhood.) We moved away from Maxime St. in 1984 so it was touching that almost every neighbour came to the visitation 33 years later. Similarly, his entire “poker gang” -a group of men who played cards together for more than 40 years- went out of their way to visit at the hospital, to send notes and to shorten their vacations to say a final goodbye.

What was the secret to my Dad’s deep and lasting relationships? He listened to people. He helped them whenever he could. He was a “straight shooter,” and he really, really knew how to have a good time.

One cousin sent a voicemail message to my Dad from California. He put it best:

“You’re a person who went out of your way to be kind.”

#4. Do your homework. My Dad had a finely tuned bullshit meter and absolutely no patience for smoke and mirrors. Do you know what you’re talking about or not? He wanted to see the numbers. He wanted to hear sound logic. He wanted to see a well thought-out plan and he didn’t want you to skip any steps. “Brûle pas des étapes” was a favourite saying. Often obstinate, he loved a good debate, but it was best to leave a little buffer after he had just read the paper or watched the news.



My Dad with me and my daughter on the day I received my M.A.

#5. Work hard. My dad had great respect for hard-working people who made their own way in the world. From a kid who was paid $1/day to pick potatoes to being self-employed for most of his adult life, he certainly did. An early riser, he would watch the comings and goings of his neighbours. He could tell you that the man who delivered his morning paper had the contract for all the buildings on his street; that his wife drove the car, and that his whole workday was done before 6am. He could explain how his clients grew their businesses and, an entrepreneur himself, he knew the time and chops it takes to run your own business, feed your family and plan for business cycles and for the future. Chief among his mantras was “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.”


#6. Count on me. Back in the days of pay phones, my sisters and I always had to have a quarter with us when we left the house. That way, if we ever needed our parents, they were just a call away. When he moved to Vancouver for a few years after my Mom died, he assured us that if we needed him, he would be on the next flight. When we had our babies, he spent a week with us, filled our freezers with our favourite comfort foods and let us rest while he cuddled the newest of his 12 grandchildren. From our first steps into independence, we had the courage to spread our wings while knowing there was a soft place to land.


One of my last card games with my Dad, I left him holding a mitt-full!

#7. “Cards is cards.” Whether it’s go fish, canasta, cribbage, Rumoli, pass the ace (ugh!) or poker, my Dad always knew a game that could include everyone and he loved to connect over a game of cards. While games like crib and 31 teach you to count, he was more interested in your character. There’s etiquette around a card table. You have to deal from the top of the deck, deal yourself last, keep your cards above the table, and most importantly NEVER cheat! You play the hand you are dealt. You play to win but sometimes you lose (even little kids), and you can do both with grace.

#8. Make magic and enjoy the ride. Not a magician, but a man who made magic moments is how I would describe my dad. We had parades in the house on Christmas morning. Dad could peel an apple in one long strand as we waited eagerly. He collected our girlhood tears in his cotton handkerchief and told us they would be pearls on our wedding day.

As a kid, if you bumped your head, he would tell you that the bump will grow a bubble gum. When it was “ripe” he would tug on your hair a little bit and pretend that piece of Hubba Bubba or Bazooka Joe came out of your head! And the meals! They were always amazing in quantity, quality and presentation and you could always sneak into the kitchen to get “pick-ins” during the preparation. He could really connect with people and engage with them totally.


You can learn a lot while playing games. Have fun. Be honest.

During one of his week-long visits, he and my son created an elaborate Lego game of “zone” which involved creating elaborate bases with defences. It lasted for years. My Dad would call my son from Ottawa to tell him he consulted with the Department of National Defence and had new ideas to make his zone impenetrable. Tickled pink by the fun and the attention, my young son would respond  that we had visited the Ontario Science Centre and he could counter that new technology. During one of these all too rare visits, my Dad put tinfoil balls everywhere in our basement. When my son came home from school, he found little army men all lined up at the top of the stairs leading to the basement and a sign on the door that read “No Access, the Management.” My Dad did all kinds of silly things just to make kids talk. He liked to see how they thought their way out of unexpected situations.


In business, it’s easy to make someone feel special, yet we sometimes feel that we are too busy for fun and celebration. In the public sector especially, managers feel meals and fun are superfluous and fear they will be criticized, but we are humans working together. We need common points of reference. We need to be ourselves. We need to blow off steam and to have fun. It doesn’t have to cost anything to make magic but the dividends are exceptional.

#9. “My house, my rules.” It wasn’t all fun and games. A self-described “benevolent dictator,” my dad set norms and expectations in his home. He welcomed and respected everyone who walked through the door but expected the same in return. (So boyfriends, NEVER honk from the driveway. Take your ball caps off at the table and have us home by curfew!) As one of my sisters said at his funeral:

Our Dad had very few rules, and we knew better than to push too far.  He said what he meant, and he meant what he said.  We would always know the value of consequence, but he always left room for a way to make amends.

It’s important for leaders to be firm in their convictions and clear about their values and expectations. There is some room for input, feedback and evolution. There is also a necessity for clear norms, expectations and consequences. There is, ultimately, a decision-maker. Whether it’s your family or your organization, norms set the tone for how people interact within the organization and how they represent it in the world. With plummeting trust in organizations, government and media, we need higher expectations of behaviour and tough consequences for those who contravene them.

#10. Be yourself. My Dad would scoff at the concept of personal “brand.” He led by example every day and in every sphere of his life. He was a smart, kind, classy, generous and through-and-through authentic person. His lifelong investments in relationships were his greatest return.

I concede that is is a longer and somewhat “ramblier” post than I usually write. It was difficult to boil down the essence and the lessons of a man who meant so much to me when the grief is so fresh. It’s hard to edit with tears in my eyes and my heart still in my throat. Thank you for bearing with me and for learning a bit about a great man.

I’d love to know, what did your Dad teach you about leadership?

Archived: What my Mom taught me about leadership

May 14, 2017

my mom 1My Mom: The first person I laid eyes on, the first person to guide me by the hand, my first love and my first model of leadership. While I didn’t know it as a child and disregarded it as an adolescent, my Mom taught me a lot about leadership.

Like most great leaders, she never sat me down and said: “Now, I will teach you about leadership.” She just led by example: Lesson #1.

When I sat down to draft this post I had a few ideas and thought it would come together easily. Yet, the more I pulled on the threads of memory, the more I had to say, the longer the list became, the more it related to leadership theory and the less I knew how to organize it all. In the end, I think it breaks down into some big themes and some common wisdom that applies to all leaders.

Elaine O’Rourke will never be on the cover of Forbes or Fast Company but here’s my tribute to my Mom’s leadership style. For what is leadership if not the ability to exert a lasting influence on others?

My Mom taught me about:

  1. Servant leadership: I can’t tell you the hours my Mom spent driving my three sisters and me around, typing endless high school papers, not to mention the endless hours of cooking, cleaning, shopping, doctor’s appointments, etc. You really can’t appreciate all that devotion until you are a parent yourself and understand that, just maybe, there were times when she would have preferred to do something else. Through it all, I don’t remember any complaints, it was always done to support our pursuit of the day. We think of it as typical “parent stuff” but it prepares us to be of service to others so that they can meet their objectives.
  2. Motivation: Parents know instinctively what motivates their children. Is it the promise of a reward or the threat of loss?  Is it “eat your dinner and then you can have dessert” or “if you don’t eat your dinner then there will be no dessert”? Different approaches work for different people under different circumstances and my Mom seemed to know how to recalibrate. Regardless of the circumstances, she always offered plenty of praise, mostly sensitive feedback and unbelievable chocolate chip cookies.
  3. Setting positive norms and values: There is lots of research about optimal organizations being those where peoples’ values align with those of their organization. Those values come to life through behaviours and “how we do things.” In our home there was respect for authority, there was kindness, honesty, good manners, taking pride in yourself and there was a solid work ethic. Of course I groaned every time I heard: “If you’re going to do something, do it properly,” but it has served me well.
  4. The importance of celebrating: Oh the feasts! My Mom (and Dad) knew how to throw a party. Every holiday, every birthday, the more the merrier and the effort they put into these celebrations let people know how special they are. They were fostering lasting family and community ties and creating a common history. I learned later in reading Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer  how important it is for people to eat together, to get to know one another and to celebrate milestones and holidays. It creates goodwill among team members which can be critical during challenging times.
  5. Perseverance: When I was an infant, my Mom discovered that she had advanced kidney disease and was told she should get her affairs in order. She wasn’t going to leave her husband with four young girls at home without a fight so she made arrangements to go to the Mayo Clinic. There, she discovered that she had been misdiagnosed but would need a transplant to survive. It was quite unheard of to challenge a doctor’s authority in those days and the church was not sold on transplantation either. She was undeterred.  After some time on dialysis a donor was found and that gift kept her alive for more than twenty years. This wouldn’t be her last health challenge. During one health scare, Mom received a blood transfusion tainted with Hepatitis C. She fought for years to prove it and to obtain the compensation to which she was entitled. She knew she’d been done wrong by and, ill as she was, she was quite literally not about to take it lying down. She was eventually compensated by the federal and provincial governments but she did not live to see that day.

There is so much more to say but I think I’ll close with more “comMom” wisdom that I use every day.

  • Listen
  • Be optimistic
  • Think critically without criticizing others
  • Do your best
  • Go for it!
  • Say please and thank you (I’m still always behind on Thank you notes but it’s a kind gesture and good networking)
  • Be yourself
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously (“The Devil made me do it” was a favourite phrase of hers.)

I asked a number of friends what their Moms taught them about leadership and the conversation was fascinating. Stay tuned for those insights in a follow-up post. Until then, what did your Mom teach you about leadership?

%d bloggers like this: