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Lessons Learned

5 Leadership Lessons From Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

With Obama leaving office and "Elbowgate" behind him, all eyes are on Canada's top leader and the skills he brings to the job.

5 Leadership Lessons From Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
[Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images]

This week, just two months after the much-debated elbowing incident in the Canadian Parliament, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau landed on the cover of a Marvel comic book. Clearly, and despite his detractors, Trudeau is having a moment.

His support for feminism goes viral. So does his chummy relationship with President Obama. And as the two leaders are joined by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Ottawa this week for the last "Three Amigos Summit" of Obama's second term, where climate change and North America's response to Brexit are on the docket, Trudeau may soon find himself (depending on what happens stateside in November) the leading progressive politician in the Western Hemisphere.

PM Trudeau's stint in the Marvel universe (Canadian Press/Ramon Perez)

Having worked as a senior advisor on Trudeau's 2015 campaign platform, I had a front-row seat to a leadership style that often flouts convention and inspires admiration at a time of pervasive, worldwide mistrust in political figures and institutions.

"PM Trudeau’s leadership style is characterized by transparency, accessibility, openness, and a willingness to collaborate," says Lisa Kimmel, president and CEO of PR firm Edelman Canada. "These are the very traits that Edelman’s most recent 'Trust Barometer' shows are most admired and valued by the mass population in public and private sector roles."

Regardless of your politics, there are few key lessons we can learn from Prime Minister Trudeau's approach to leadership. Here are five of them.

1. Build A Brilliant Team

Before his landslide election last November, Trudeau and his key advisors focused on building the best team possible, recruiting individuals with a broad range of personal and professional experiences that reflected the gamut of Canada's cultural and religious diversity. Trudeau has attributed his electoral success to having "[gathered] the most brilliant people and challenging them to find real solutions," an approach that he's continued in his administration.

The idea is premised on something many leaders still find counterintuitive: on not knowing all the answers—and instead bringing together a committed, collaborative group that can sort them out together. After all, research has shown that diversity is often key to creative thinking and problem-solving.

It's a validation of the efforts some business leaders are now making to expand their recruiting pools and fight the unconscious biases that can undermine the best intentions and lead to homogeneous hires.

2. Open Up And Sustain Real Conversations

To the surprise of commentators and critics, Trudeau has shown himself remarkably willing to engage with people who disagree with him and consider their views.

"He’s evolving the relationship between the public and government and has made transparent, genuine dialogue the new standard," says Cameron Fowler, who leads over 15,000 of BMO Financial Group's 45,000 employees as group head of Canadian personal and commercial banking. "It’s an intuitive approach based on the belief that having more people in the tent and as part of the conversation results in a stronger position."

"To be effective and productive, the dialogue has to start with leaders listening, then engaging," Fowler adds, "—and only then making a decision."

3. Rewriting The Leadership Resume

Before politics, PM Trudeau was a teacher, nonprofit leader, nightclub bouncer, and snowboard instructor, along with the odd acting gig on the side. Needless to say, it’s a CV that significantly deviates from the traditional path to senior leadership roles and was initially derided—not least of all because Trudeau's father, Pierre Trudeau, served as one of Canada's most popular prime ministers and dominated the country's politics from the late 1960s through the mid-'80s. Charges of nepotism have been harsh (and haven't quite relented), but Justin Trudeau seems to have more advocates than critics on this score—those who see his eclectic experience as a merit.

As Rana Sarkar, an expert in disruptive change at KPMG Canada observes at the Huffington Post that "Trudeau has disrupted what good leadership looks like." He continues:

The very skills the prime minister honed as a teacher and third-sector leader are key to his ability to motivate and react with agility—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. An increasingly in-demand skill amidst huge change.

Experts likewise believe that emotional intelligence (EQ) is indeed becoming more valuable for these very reasons. Not only can leaders who get high marks for EQ "connect and inspire employees," as Sarkar writes, but the trait has been linked to higher engagement, innovation, and profitability.

And for leaders, recruiters, and hiring managers, that means "expanding how you screen and view professional and life experience," Sarkar adds, not to mention "tapping into your own broader experiences to access the full capacity of your leadership potential."

4. Perfection Isn't Required, But Vulnerability Is

Last month, in what became known as "Elbowgate," Prime Minister Trudeau was accused of manhandling another member of Parliament. Many felt it was jarringly out of character from the open and positive style Canadians had come to expect from him.

More than a month afterward, though, Trudeau's approval ratings were higher than ever, leading observers to conclude that the widely decried incident had no impact on his reputation.

That was largely thanks to Trudeau's just-as-widely discussed apology—actually, his series of apologies—that came immediately, without qualification, and struck many as sincere.

The point is that leadership doesn’t require perfection. Vulnerability is arguably more powerful. "The prime minister made a mistake," as Awi Sinha, a litigation partner at the law firm McCarthy Tetrault, puts it. "We know leaders make mistakes; the difference was he owned up to it and apologized clearly, immediately. It was a sincere, proportionate reaction to an error. That’s different than perhaps what we’ve expected from past, 'tough' leaders. It was refreshing."

"The episode is instructive for men my age in the private sector," Sinha reflects. "He acknowledged flaws and a desire to improve. And that turns out to be invigorating, not emasculating. Business leaders may want to talk about 'authenticity,' 'agility,' and 'progressiveness,'" but their actions need to convey those values, too.

5. Have A Real Life

On a recent official visit to Japan, Prime Minister Trudeau made waves when he took a day off to celebrate his wedding anniversary, something one national magazine described as "generally not done."

Trudeau has gone out of his way to highlight and integrate his personal relationships into his leadership style. Beyond the conventional photo-ops, he's shown the value he places on his role as a husband, son, father, and friend as core to his effectiveness and values. And that approach is also shifting how his team works.

In a first for such a senior role, Canadian Environment Minister Catherine Mckenna declared that from 5:30 to 9 p.m. in the evenings, she'll be offline to give herself uninterrupted time with her family—something she's made clear she needs to perform at her best professionally.

Simply put, leaders need to remain flexible and sensitive to work-life issues. It's up to politicians to support important policy changes like paid parental leave, which is still conspicuously lacking at the national level in the U.S. And in the meantime, it's up to leaders to craft work cultures that reflect these values. Give your team—and yourself—the leeway to work in the way that works for the rest of your lives.

related video: Why Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Wants You To Disagree With Him

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