Presentation to York University MBA Learners October 15, 2003

By Kay Blair

My Personal Journey - On Being a Leader


Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. I am delighted to have this opportunity to share my experiences with you, and reflect on some of my personal challenges and achievements. I want to touch on three areas - first, my personal journey; second, what I have learned about leadership as I went along; and third, how leadership should manifest itself in the organization.

Before delving into the nuts and bolts of my life, however, let me say that my frame of reference is always grounded in human relationships. That is, my leadership philosophy is rooted in one of my most deeply held personal beliefs: people are genuinely good, and, if they are given the opportunity, they will achieve their full potential. Consequently, I am committed to facilitating opportunities that help to raise people up, from wherever they are to wherever they might be. Essentially, when we expect the best from people they are able to realize their capabilities and maximize their full potential). This belief and practice is important to me because as human beings we are very fragile - we need to be handled gently.

1. My Personal Journey

I arrived in Canada 27 years ago, young, married, and with a child. It wasn't long before I became a divorcee with two children. I also experienced many challenges finding meaningful employment. To a great extent, those years have shaped the person I am today. I had to make new friends, raise two children, and build a career for myself without the support and guidance of an extended family. I did, however, find family support within various communities of women.

My original career goal was to become a lawyer. Although I was accepted into law school in 1987, I was unable to accept the offer: at the time, my choices were between getting an education, and providing food and shelter for my children, the same situation faced by many women. Such a choice is really no choice at all, and instead of enrolling in law school, I continued to work three jobs (shelter administrator, counsellor, and part-time hotel clerk). It was not until 2002 that I was able to return to university, and today I am completing an MBA with a specialization in organizational leadership (I guess I have finally come to terms with not being a lawyer!).

At the same time as I was working those three jobs, I was also volunteering in the immigrant / refugee and women's communities, working on issues of violence against women and, in particular, challenging systems of oppression that impact immigrant and racial minority women's economic participation, social development, and their general well-being. These volunteer activities led to my establishing the first shelter in Canada for immigrant women who were victims of abuse and also to my directing several provincial organizations and coalitions concerned with equality, justice and fairness for all.

2. How I Understand Leadership

While I have filled a variety of leadership positions, I often see these functions merely as titles. What is far more important, I believe, is that I have earned people's respect because of my character and the consistency of my behaviour. To lead effectively I must first be able to serve, a person who works to remove those barriers which limit people's contributions and who encourages individuals to pursue those activities that will give their lives meaning and purpose.

I believe that leadership is something that cannot be taught, but which can be learned, because effective leadership starts with the self. Management maybe about creating change in a business organization but, Leadership is the ability to overcome resistance to change; it is building unity without conformity because people are individuals, they are not clones. My expression of self must be truly my own, and I must earn people's respect and commitment by consistently demonstrating those qualities I try to nurture: inclusiveness, diversity, teamwork, sharing, learning, leading, and following.

I believe that effective leaders share two common characteristics: followers, and humility. Leaders must always keep faith with their people (followers), and they must have a clear vision and a willingness to serve (humility). Essentially, a leader is indeed a servant, learning, following, and teaching. To be an effective leader, I must strive to demonstrate objectivity and trust, practice humility, and reduce fear at every opportunity in my daily life. People can be easily intimidated; it is the role of the leader to create a supportive environment conducive to eliminating fear and intimidation in the workplace which can be at time brought on by organizational change.

3. Leadership in the Organization

We ask the question: what are the qualities of a leader, and what is the role - the actions and behaviours - that a leader must display? The primary role of a leader is to articulate a clear vision and mission that stimulate, entice and inspire people. Leaders who communicate effectively, who show genuine commitment to the empowerment of others, are able to achieve their objectives. In the 21st Century, we have come to understand that individuals are fragile, and need to experience a sense of belonging in order to be fully contributing members of society. Consequently, we can no longer rely on the "command and control" style of leadership which evolved so naturally from 19th and 20th Century business practices.

As we move into positions of leadership, we must be willing to broaden our role, utilizing a transparent process. Leading requires vision, strategic intention, risk taking and patience, persistence, and an investment that goes beyond what is expected of us. To be effective leaders, we must consistently demonstrate the ability to support people, as they learn how to live by the values we personify.


My approach to life, as an individual and as a business leader, is the constant valuing of others. I am not completely fearless in this approach, but I see fear as a stimulant to breaking new ground and taking risks. I see every challenge as an opportunity for change and I embrace, as a basic life principle, non-judgementalism: each person is worthy and, if given the opportunity, can be effective. I also believe that leaders are not born and that each person has the capacity to learn to lead.

Consequently, I encourage you to find your own unique voice, be true to your individual self, practice humility, develop convictions based on sound values and principles, and seek out meaningful ways to practice those convictions.

Thank you, and good luck as you continue your individual and collective journeys!