Blogs & Comment

The biggest leadership lesson from Justin Trudeau’s historic win

Modern organizations increasingly need networks of expertise, not command-and-control hierarchies

Justin Trudeau

(Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty)

In April 2014, a picture appeared of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and then-city councillor Adam Vaughan on the front page of the Toronto Star. Taken by the political party’s official photographer, it showed the two men deep in conversation at downtown Toronto bistro. The accompanying story reported the Liberals had wooed Vaughan to run as a candidate in an upcoming by-election (He won, then trounced NDP candidate Olivia Chow in yesterday’s vote). “I talked to Justin and he listened and I listened to him and I want to help make him prime minister,” said Vaughan in the story. The scenario was familiar—after all, how many bosses have buttered up a potential employee by taking them out for a nice lunch? But publicizing the moment sent a message: At a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper increasingly looked like a one-man-band, Trudeau was building a team.

Let us set aside for a moment whether the policies of the prime minister-designate will be good or bad for business. There’s a clear and simple management strategy lesson in the Liberals’ move from third party to majority government: The team matters. Vaughan, a well-known if occasionally pugnacious former TV reporter, was only one of several high-profile, credible candidates recruited by Trudeau over the past two years. There was former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, aboriginal leader Jody Wilson-Raybould, noted author and journalist Chrystia Freeland and Andrew Leslie, a former Canadian Forces lieutenant-general. He also gave newfound prominence to existing MPs like former astronaut Marc Garneau. One imagines Trudeau and his advisors criss-crossing the country like the Blues Brothers, making the same pitch: “We’re putting the party back together.”

Surrounding himself with highly qualified individuals was a smart way for Trudeau to combat the notion that he was unqualified to lead the country. But recruiting this strong team isn’t a counterbalance to a weak figurehead. It’s actually proof of Trudeau’s strength as a leader. In contrast to Harper’s command-and-control style of management, Trudeau has promised to listen to his colleagues. As he told Chatelaine during the election campaign:

“It’s the style of leadership I learned from my father: My father gathered the most brilliant people he could find and challenged them to find real solutions. He watched them debate and disagree while they engaged in a serious pursuit of the best possible answer regardless of ideology. Some people have come to admire Stephen Harper’s style because he’s standing at the top of the pyramid —that’s not leadership to me. Leadership is inspiring extraordinary people to step up and serve their country.”

Indeed, the stereotype of a strong leader—be it Stephen Harper or Steve Jobs—is an authority figure with little patience for the opinions of others. But that’s a misguided notion. Great leaders don’t need all the answers. They just need to have a team that can offer them.