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Ottawa November 16/09 Recap

Chief talks courage and leadership

Fear of failure biggest challenge to advancement, White tells audience

By Tom Spears, The Ottawa CitizenNovember 17, 2009

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OTTAWA — When Vern White was a new police chief in Ottawa, his senior staff told him that letting the street crime unit buy drugs from Ottawa dealers “was too high-risk.”

The advice didn’t go over well. “I told them, ‘The public are exposed to that danger each and every day.’ ”

The chief says he sided with the officers on the streets.

“Our officers were ready to put themselves in harm’s way. They demanded the opportunity to buy drugs from drug dealers downtown. I would argue that the senior executive were not ready to take the risk, were not ready to risk their job,” he said.

White was speaking Monday at a special event about leadership, the first of a six-city speaking tour hosted by retired Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada’s former chief of defence staff.

Leadership is all about taking risks, and backing up subordinates who take risks, White told about 200 listeners at the National Arts Centre.

“One of the larger challenges I’ve seen in moving people toward embracing change is lack of courage: courage to make a mistake, courage to do things nobody else has done.

“People will be wrong, you will make a mistake, you will fail. Ask yourself: How often do you encourage that in your people? You will also, at the same time, encourage creativity and risk.

“I look at a new officer as he arrives at his first break-and-enter or his first domestic violence call, and the complainant expects leadership from that officer at that moment. You don’t care how much service the officer has. Doesn’t matter.”

Leaders will persuade others in their organizations “not to allow past failure or the possibility of future failure paralyse them into inaction.”

When he was a new chief, he was told that one younger officer was pretty good, but didn’t “follow well.”

White asked what that meant. “As leaders, we need followers,” he was told.

“And I disagree with that,” he said Monday. “I don’t need followers. I need leaders. I tell you, at 4 a.m., the only thing that woman expects when (police officers) arrive at her house is a leader.

“Yet something happens as we climb the corporate stairs. We stop taking chances, to become risk-averse. We lose the leadership edge.”

Hillier, who commanded Canadian troops in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, said leaders must bring change, but they also have to show employees who have survived wave after wave of changes that there’s “radical evidence” the next change will be useful.