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My Mentor Taught Me the Power of Personal Modesty and Humility

07/15/2015 12:37 EDT | Updated 07/15/2016 05:59 EDT
CP

In executive recruiting, you run across all types of individuals from all kinds of backgrounds, with varied skills and life experiences. It is an aspect of the profession that keeps it endlessly fascinating.

During the course of an engagement, you also run into all manner of folks with varying degrees of ego. They range from mildly self-confident (generally a good thing), to a corporate variant of megalomania (not a personality trait welcomed by most hiring panels).

One very telling trait in a prospective candidate's makeup is their ability to ascribe whatever success they may have had thus far in their careers to the influence or assistance of others. Often they will speak of a mentor or a series of mentors as pivotal figures.

This certainly resonates with me on a very personal level. Beginning with my incredible parents, my immediate and broader family, my wonderful wife and in-laws, and my great friends, I am fortunate to have been surrounded by amazing role models and mentors my whole life.

One very special mentor and teacher of mine is the Honourable Irwin Cotler, who I met back in the early 1990s. I was a law student at McGill and was presenting a mock appeal. As chance would have it, Irwin Cotler -- a professor at the school -- was one of the three individuals listening to my presentation.

Needless to say, these things can be a stressful event in the life of a young student. When I finished, Professor Cotler, in that measured tone of voice and reasoned manner we have all come to know and respect over the years, thanked me for my efforts; praised me for what I had covered well; and gently pointed out TEN things I could have done better!

I was in shock... and awe.

More importantly, I walked out thinking that this is an individual I can learn from -- and not just about the law.

I asked him if I could follow up with him to learn in greater detail how I might have done better and, characteristically, he said yes.

I ended up taking a number of his courses and working for him as a researcher in the summer. It was an invaluable mentorship.

To this day he has had an enormous impact on the way I look at the world and the decisions I make. Perhaps more importantly, I saw, through his own example, the power of personal modesty and humility.

This is, after all, a man of great accomplishment and world renown.

International Human Rights Lawyer; Counsel to Prisoners of Conscience; Peace Activist; Member of Parliament; Minister of Justice and Attorney General; Constitutional and Comparative Law Scholar -- these are but a few of the hats he has worn over the course of his career.

He would have every reason to be boastful. But that is not in his nature.

Irwin Cotler not long ago was interviewed by the Globe and Mail, on the occasion of his having been named the inaugural winner of the Law Society of Upper Canada Human Rights Award.

In that interview he spoke of the influence of his parents. His father taught him as a child, among other things, that the pursuit of justice is equal to all of the other commandments combined. And it was in this vein that he got deeply involved in two of the great human rights struggles of the second half of the 20th century -- the struggle for Soviet Jewry and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

And we all know that these struggles were successfully resolved -- Professor Cotler's advocacy, including his campaign to shame governments into acknowledging and recognizing the oppressive nature of their regimes, mobilized support and helped lead to the freedom of iconic figures like Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela.

Irwin Cotler gave these brave individuals hope -- as he continues to do so for countless others to this day.

For those starting out on their career path today, I would offer the following advice:

Find not only a good mentor, but the right mentor for you. Look for an individual whose values and example you wish to emulate.

As Irwin Cotler steps away from his illustrious career in parliament, we can reflect on how honourable a calling public service can be. Pierre Trudeau advised him in 1999: 'You can compromise on matters of policy, but never compromise on matters of principle.' He took this advice to heart, and lived up to this ideal glowingly. At a time when politics is too often driven by ego, power and nastiness, we can learn a lot from Irwin Cotler's life and legacy.

Professor Cotler once taught me, if I ever wonder what I can do in a world that can often make us feel cynical or even indifferent, to recall the words of the great sage Maimonides. He suggested we look at the world as if it is exactly half evil and half good. If we think of it that way -- and I tell my own children this now -- then one good deed, be it calling a grandparent to say hi; helping someone across the street; or stopping bullying -- can tip the scale.

This provides hope that we all can help repair the human condition... and no one has done so more than Irwin Cotler... a man who transcends politics... but embodies the conscience of our nation.

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