Discuss: How to be a leader

Lieutenant Governor of Ontario The Honourable David C. Onley and his son Robert on what it takes to become a leader.

The Honourable David C. Onley (left) and Robert Onley.

The Honourable David C. Onley (BA, 1975), Ontario's 28th Lieutenant Governor, has held many leadership roles over his career in broadcasting and public service. His Honour's son, Robert Onley (BA, 2009), is an articling law student, a former student council president and a member of Youth Diplomacy, an international youth think tank. Both are proud UTSC alumni, so UTSC Commons asked them to sit down in His Honour's office at Queen's Park to explore the concept of leadership.

His Honour: When was the first time you realized somebody was a leader?

Robert Onley: In school, when I realized my sixth-grade teacher Mr. Hazlewood was influencing the way I was thinking.

HH: When I was student council president at Scarborough College (now UTSC) our principal was Wynne Plumptre. He was a remarkably dignified gentleman, a scholar and a diplomat. This was at a time in the early 1970s of great student activism. And there were many laudable attempts by the administration to reach out to student groups and involve students in the decision-making process. Principal Plumptre did this with great aplomb. He was a real conciliator. I remember being conscious of the fact that he was practicing a form of leadership that I found enormously impressive.

RO: A great leader creates opportunities for people. And if you want to lead, it's up to you to seize these opportunities. Universities can provide opportunities for people to exercise skills they might have deep inside them. That's huge. Leaders understand that if you don't have the opportunities, you'll never realize your potential.

HH: You learn bits of leadership as you go along. My late father, Robert's grandfather, was a navigator in WW2 with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Many of my Dad's friends had fought in the war. These were amazing guys. They flew Lancaster bombers and Hurricanes and Sunderlands. These guys were decision makers, and when they came home they moved into various leadership positions in society. I'm not sure how much of leadership can be taught, but I'm sure a good portion of it is something you can learn.

RO: We've transformed the way our generation rallies around causes and exhibits leadership. We'll never displace the old notions of political leadership and government, but the ability of young people to quickly coordinate and connect on ideas... we need to harness that for good. For three years I've been a part of Youth Diplomacy, an international NGO that runs G8/G20 Youth Summits. One year the summit was in Paris and I represented Canada as the Minister of Defense. This was, for me, a staggering event, a week-long set of negotiations with my counter-parts from the G8. We had some of the most intense debates over nuclear-proliferation policy, Iran, Libya, defense spending, piracy. And at the end of it we collaborated using Skype, Google Docs and Facebook Messenger to draft a communiqué that summed up the positions we could agree to. In a matter of five days we produced a mini-essay that consolidated the collective wisdom of the G8 youth. Here's what makes that so mind-blowing: for the first time in history, the leaders of tomorrow are already communicating with each other today. This is unprecedented. The rules of the game have changed.

HH: A leader still has to lead, though. The principles of leadership are still the same: you have to inspire people. You have to convince them that they can trust you to make the right decisions even when they don't fully agree with it, whether that's in the boardroom, in cabinet or in the prime minister's office. From my experience, one of the great leadership skills is the capacity to listen to other people. As long as people are being listened to, and they know their input is valued and appreciated, they'll follow you.

RO: A good leader is also able to find and keep the right people.

HH: That's crucial. You just can't do it yourself. If you try to, you won't succeed. History is littered with presidents and prime ministers who tried to do it all by themselves.

RO: As a leader, I don't just want "Yes" people. I want people who will stand up to me or make me sit down and listen. You need a counterweight, someone who puts you in your place a little bit. Because if you don't have that, you risk trampling the roses.

HH: There is such a thing as a born leader, but born leaders can still bomb out if they don't choose the right people or have the right skill sets.

RO: And if you're lucky, you might have good leaders at home, in your own family. I've always been inspired by how much my Dad has accomplished in his life. Having battled polio at a young age, and having fought through it all the way to today... I've always felt that if he can do that, with his condition, imagine what I can do! I have an unrivalled sense of optimism in my own capabilities because I see what can be done.

HH: Well, I was inspired by my Dad, but also inspired by my mother. She was the one who taught me how to be a pit-bull, to fight to get things fixed. When my grandmother came down with Alzheimer's in 1974, nobody knew what it meant. So my mother said, "Well then, we need to have an Alzheimer's Society." So along with another lady she founded the very first chapter of the Alzheimer's Society. That wasn't political or military leadership, but it was leadership.

RO: In the end, leaders are doers. They get stuff done. They say, "this is wrong," or "this needs to change" and they just make it happen. That's where universities come in. By presenting opportunities for students to engage with the world, UTSC can help create immense change. If you live intentionally and take opportunities and make decisions, you can do so much. That's what being a leader is all about.