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Leadership Lessons We Can All Learn From Trudeau

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Lara Logan started her recent 60 Minutes interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a line of questioning on his "unusual path to office" and probing his "qualification" for the job, echoing the "not ready" attacks of the past election and from his first day of elected politics. Although turned to advantage with Jedi skill by Trudeau, it's a remarkably persistent concern which stands in stark contrast with public enthusiasm and his performance to date.

But it's still worth unpacking for a moment, as it speaks to a larger dissonance on what makes a good leader amidst change, the nature of careers, and the way organizations source and develop their people in this century. Before being elected to Parliament, PM Trudeau spent time working as a teacher, a non-profit leader, a bouncer at a B.C. night-club, a snow board instructor -- along with side gigs such as starring in CBC TV movie The Great War.
His success will be not in spite of his past, but because of it.

In short he's very much a creature of our shared generation, where portfolio careers and frequent job-to-gig-to-entrepreneurship changes over three to four years is the new normal in an economy trending for many reasons toward 50 per cent in non-standard work with all the attendant changes in work aspirations and outlook.

Far from being a disqualifier, it's his varied past and the skills he developed through it, that might make him an effective leader at a moment of disruptive change. His success will be not in spite of his past, but because of it.

For his critics the PM's career deviated from what is still considered the "right" or conventional path to a senior leadership role -- marked by decades in professional services, academia, industry or fluid transition from political staffer to elected official.

And in that reversal are at least three key lessons on leadership in the age of innovation and authenticity both individuals and organizations might learn from.

They include:

1. The linear, upward CV is done.

It used to be that senior leadership roles were the end prize after an upward, linear career climb.

No longer.

The prime minister's fluid career model is far more reflective of the new world of work -- and the type of leaders needed to navigate it. We are living in a gig economy where, for better or worse, constant re-invention and experimentation are the building blocks of success along the way.

For organizations, this means expanding how and who they hire and attracting candidates with diverse experience across sectors, geographies and functions. A more mixed career background increases a leader's ability to relate to a greater numbers of people, to think creatively and to bring in unexpected skills to challenges.

For individuals -- the lesson is to value work you might have previously discounted in an effort to seem more "professional." Instead, reflect on the unexpected skills, insights or perspectives gained and reflect creatively on how it might help you with a current role or future goal.

For instance, the baristas who work the morning shifts at a busy Starbucks has a unique perspective on thriving under pressure, planning work and collaboration.

2. Value Testing Your Boundaries:

In his book, Common Ground, Trudeau talks about his time as a bouncer in interior B.C. Here he was among the least physically intimidating guys at the club but was still designated first responder when things in the club started to get messy.

He reflects, "the secret to being an effective bouncer is to be both diplomatic and unintimdatable" -- to ego manage while allowing opponents to save face. It also requires a high degree of situational awareness to deflect and anticipate conflict while acting swiftly where required.

Leading into his campaign the PM always seemed willing to test his boundaries, whether the legendary boxing match, or athletic discipline applied to debate preparation.

Leadership in an age of continual disruption requires the ability to continually step out of your comfort zone and to persuade a diverse range of others to come with you.

For organizations this means fostering a culture where employees are encouraged to take risks, embrace change and risk the discomfort of failure. It's the organizational challenge our times and a preoccupation of top leaders (resisted culturally and often by those best placed to enable it). For individuals, embracing opportunities in and outside of work to test their own limits and build resilience is key. That triathlon beacons.

3. Leadership Is About Authentic Engagement.

The shift to a flatter corporate culture and increased employee skepticism of the top down approach has combined with a growing desire to feel like work is connected to meaning. The result is that the most effective leaders are those who have the ability to connect and inspire employees -- this trait has been linked to higher engagement, innovation and profitability.

To build this culture, leaders need the confidence to be what Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy calls 'present.' Not needing to manage what others think of him in the moment or try to be the smartest in the room but rather encouraging others to draw out their best, is one of Trudeau's best assets. Being radically present also leads to better situational awareness, collaboration and judgment. It also enables you to recruit better and surround yourself with an effective, empowered team.

The very skills the prime minister honed as a teacher and snowboarding instructor are key to his ability to motivate not just his caucus but Canadians, and other global leaders. The successful teacher and senior leader has an ability to parse diverse threads, read situations, motivations and personalities and respond in real time.

For global leaders amidst change, this is the ultimate 21st century super power.

The lesson for the CV doubters is the old rules on leadership are changing fast and organizations and individuals could do well to follow the precedent that the prime minister is setting.

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