“You get trust if you give trust.” Sound advice from a former Prime Minister

Dominique O'Rourke, PM Paul Martin
Karen Calligan, Prime Minister Paul Martin and I at the University of Guelph’s Lincoln Alexander Outstanding Leader Awards

Only 22 people in Canada’s history have earned the title of Prime Minister. So if one of them gives you advice, I think you should take it. The advice is even more compelling if the Prime Minister has also been a captain of industry, a world-renowned statesman and now a philanthropist dedicated to aboriginal education.

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to join other alumnus and the advisory committee for the MA Leadership at the University of Guelph for a conversation with former Prime Minister Paul Martin who was at the University to receive the Lincoln Alexander Outstanding Leader Award.

What did the man behind eliminating Canada’s deficit, averting a bank crisis and the architect of the Kelowna Accord have to say about leadership? He said that a leader’s ability to listen is the key and he attributed his success as a young business executive to seeking out the people who have the answers.

“If you’re the leader, you always get the last word. You always get to make the decision. It’s up to you to get the best out of everyone so listen until you’ve exhausted all the advice in the room.”

Of course, given the top news items in our country this week: accusations of crack cocaine use by Toronto’s mayor, construction kickbacks in major Quebec municipalities, tampering with elections through Robocalls and an expense scandal in the Senate, the conversation turned to trust. Mr. Martin pointed out that there are always ups and downs in the state of trust in our institutions but acknowledged that we seem to be in a valley at the moment. (Personally, I’d say that’s a bit of an understatement.)

When asked how to generate more trust, he responded simply: “You get trust if you give trust.” As an example, he pointed to the transparency his government showed in reforming the Canada Pension Plan in 1996. As Minister of Finance he essentially raised taxes and reduced benefits to preserve a system for generations to come and attributes his success in telling it like it is and trusting people to understand. He gave a similar answer in starting discussions for the Kelowna Accord. Instead of starting discussions by telling aboriginal groups what their priorities are, or should be, his delegation asked them to identify their priorities.

What’s the difference? You’re giving your counterpart power in setting the agenda, you’re engaging in joint planning and problem solving, and joint visioning – all of which build trust. To be effective; however, these elements have to be authentic. Without real goodwill and benevolence, there can be no trust and, in fact, you will erode trust.

As one of the last questioners, I asked Prime Minister Martin: “Given we all have the same 24-hours in a day, how does a Prime Minister prioritize his time, energy and attention to focus on major social challenges?” (Personally, I find this difficult juggling work, volunteer and home life!) He answered: “Let the Ministers run their own departments.”  Ah! There’s the trust again. Trust yourself enough to surround yourself with the right people and trust them to do their jobs!

We could use more of that.

Disclaimer: In case anyone is wondering, I have no affiliation with the Liberal Party of Canada. In fact, I’ve held a card for another party with which I am currently quite disenchanted.

Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

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