Live & Learn: Thomas d'Aquino

The president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives on capitalism, entrepreneurs and life as a lawyer.

Born Nov. 3, 1940, in Trail, B.C. • CEO and president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives

I have the best job in Canada. I literally change the way people think and the way policy is made.

Some people have said to me, “How on earth did you get your job being the CEO of CEOs? You must have compromised an awful lot to work your way up.” But that’s not me. My father taught me to always be good to people on the way up the ladder, because you might meet them on the way down.

I took this job when I was 40 and the CEOs were in their 50s and 60s. I couldn’t be a shrinking violet, but, on the other hand, I couldn’t be someone who said, “You may be older and more experienced than me, but I’m a hell of a lot smarter than you.” I had to walk a narrow line and work very hard to be well informed.

A good part of my upbringing was in the wilderness. I grew up in a small town called Nelson, in the southeastern corner of British Columbia. There wasn’t a weekend that I didn’t pack my pack and go out in the mountains.

At a fairly early age, I decided I wanted to be an advocate of some kind. That propelled me toward the law. But the thing I enjoyed most was developing a case for something, building consensus around it and then trying to achieve change.

In my lawyer days, I remember going to meetings where I was the only person of a particular view, surrounded by 30 hostile American lawyers. It was great fun to go into a situation that might look hopeless and try to turn it around.

Sometimes, the tougher the challenge, the better I work. It really brings out the adrenaline in me.

My tendency has always been to lead the charge on issues. But I’ve said to people, “When I turn around, you better be behind me and not running the other way.”

If someone sends me a nasty letter, I will often pick up the phone and call the person. I’ll say, “Let me have a better understanding of why you’re saying what you are.” People really appreciate that you’ve read their letter and taken seriously what they’ve said.

Some people are suspicious of large corporations. One of my tougher challenges is explaining to our critics that the people who run our biggest enterprises are not heartless individuals who don’t give a damn about their country.

The goal of capitalism and corporations of making money can never be an end in itself. It must always have its end in building a better life.

The vast majority of CEOs and entrepreneurs are very decent people who are respectful of others and are individuals with a heart, and not just a hard-driving brain.

This idea of entitlement or privilege because you happen to be rich or powerful is alien to my thinking. People’s confidence and trust must be won day in and day out. You don’t get those things because you happen to be rich or powerful.

If you don’t have principles, honesty and integrity, you don’t have anything in life.

Getting into a canoe and paddling on the tiny lake I live on at 6:15 in the morning while there’s still a little bit of mist on the water is a sublime moment for me.

To get a job you’re genuinely going to love, you have to try a number of different ones. I have worked for a prime minister, been a professor at a law school and run my own consultancy.

When one is young, one is not wise. One can be impetuous and do silly things.

Wisdom only comes with age. Wisdom is the product of experience, good times and tough times, learning from others. It’s the product of the tens, hundreds, if not millions of tiny little effects and transactions that take place in our lives.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where some believe a person over 60 is over the hill. Even to this day, I turn to people who are older than me for advice, because they have wisdom.

The most pressing issue facing Canada today is how to leverage our strong resource base, strong education base, many people of different nationalities and good governance structure to ensure we remain relevant in the global transformation. I think we’re going in the right direction, but more focus is needed.

I always say to young people, study English literature, study languages like Mandarin, but also study history and philosophy. By seeing what has happened in the past, you become a much better judge of what’s going to happen in the future.