David is the North American director for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a former Mayor of Toronto and former president and CEO of WWF-Canada, the Canadian division of the international World Wildlife Fund.

David came to talk to our assembled leaders, from across the Commonwealth, about resilience and overcoming boundaries to success – both areas in which he has a wealth of experience.

For me, there were so many inspiring leadership lessons in his talk, and I was especially impressed by his ease of delivery on complex and challenging subjects – from social justice to climate change – his candour and authenticity resonated with me; making his messages even more compelling.

My 3 key leadership takeaways from David are:

Stop excluding people just because it’s hard to include them - they won’t go away

As the Mayor of Toronto, one of the world’s most diverse cities, David faced the challenge of how to make his city work for everyone, not just those that were easy to connect with. David told us of the challenges he faced in extending the city’s public transport system – which were logistically numerous. But, when it came to leadership, David spoke of feeling a real sense of social responsibility – that bringing public transport, to the low income neighbourhoods of the city, was essential. It would, for him, bring these people ‘into the fabric of the city’. His passion came from this social responsibility, but it was also fuelled by the understanding, that as a leader, doing nothing was not an option. By not engaging with people who feel disenfranchised, the problem doesn’t go away; it festers and manifests itself in negative attitudes and actions. David proposed that “if [as a leader] you believe in social democracy, you have to listen [to others] and take their voices seriously, otherwise, they will say ‘what about me?’” Doing nothing is not an option – we have to be inclusive, we have to cross those boundaries, we have to use our Cultural Intelligence, and we have to have those difficult conversations, if we want to come to a real solution. 

Bringing disparate teams together requires a clear mandate; one shared goal

Our CSC leaders, and I, were fascinated by how David has managed to accomplish so much, how he has been able to deliver such complex projects; projects where he has often had to lead beyond his own authority. We asked him to give us the secret, David joked “that’s’ the art of politics; bringing people together, to achieve one goal”. He unpacked the idea of this ‘art’, explaining that, for him, it’s all about having a clear mandate – one shared goal.  Using the transport expansion example; David told us a familiar story of working with silos. For this project to succeed, he had to work with many teams. He had to work with the Finance team, who had their own mandate to reduce costs, he had to work with the Economic Development team, whose mandate was to enhance prosperity - he had to work with numerous stakeholders – all with their own mandates; some of which had the potential to clash with each other.
David tackled this challenge by bringing the leaders of these silos together and co-creating a top level plan – this became the overarching mandate; one that, in principle, everyone had signed up to. This mandate could be called upon when issues arose in the finer details, when silos clashed and at sticking points in difficult conversations. Having this mandate, this overarching goal, made it difficult for any of the silos to say ‘no’; instead, all the silos were encouraged to bring their unique expertise together and work towards achieving the overall solution.

Stop trying to change people’s minds – instead, build a ‘coalition of the willing’

As an appointed leader, overcoming the challenges of working across a city is one thing, but it’s quite another level to lead in a global organization like the C40; tackling an issue as large and complicated as Climate Change – I was fascinated to hear how, as a leader, David achieves his goals in this space. Speaking about Climate Change David said “it can be a daunting for those who understand and believe in the issue; so, it’s very overwhelming for those have their own issues to deal with”. As leaders, I’m sure we can all empathise with this, I certainly can - what do we do when we’re passionate about something and want everyone else to be too – but, they have their own priorities, concerns and issues which are taking priority for them? David believes, that as a leader, it’s our responsibility to “lead and show others that it’s possible, that it works. Then, others can follow with a limited risk” he spoke of how, on issues like these, “we shouldn’t try to get everyone aligned, give up on that! Instead, build a collation of the willing. That way you can educate and give people insight – stop trying to change their minds, just show them that there’s also another way. [With Climate Change] There’s a universal need, but we need to bring people along and not to push them”.   As leaders it may feel easier and quicker to ‘tell people what to do’, but we know that doesn’t lead to real change – and if we don’t have the authority to tell others what to do, we have to find another way. David says “The C40 doesn’t have ‘a big stick’, there are no ‘have to’ rules, there’s just a need to make a plan … to build a movement of people who care

David’s talk reiterated, for me, the importance of Cultural Intelligence when dealing with diverse groups, and how we have to use our Leading Beyond Authority skills when we’re dealing with the hardest of leadership challenges - they can’t be tackled quickly and they require continued effort. But, true leaders, leaders who want to effect real change – they bring people from all cultures along with them; they are inclusive and they inspire others to achieve more.