The 2008 financial crisis was a cathartic moment, and few Canadians were as troubled by the events as Calgary private equity manager Mac Van Wielingen. Seeing the ethical void at the core of the crisis, he embarked on a mission leading to last week’s gift of $9.5-million for studying ethical leadership at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. Mr. Van Wielingen, 58, a founder of ARC Financial Corp., spearheaded the donation by himself, colleagues and families to establish a centre of advanced business leadership.
Where did this idea of a leadership centre come from?
Leadership is a passion of mine and a core competence of our companies. Then, in 2008-09 with the collapse, I was appalled by the inability of a lot of business leaders to really look at some of the root causes of corporate failure.
In discussions with Haskayne dean Leonard Waverman, we asked what business educators were doing to develop leadership capacities and skills to reduce the risk that these students would go out in organizations and it would be just more of the same.
Was it the general mood or a particular catalyst?
There was so much – just look at these major organizations and their high profiles, such as Citibank, AIG and Lehman Brothers, and then the BP disaster. The level of trust in society toward the business sector was at the lowest level in history. There was such a breakdown of public trust and a sense of cynicism.
Do you agree with the Occupy movement?
I have a lot of sympathy with the public sentiments that surfaced sometimes very awkwardly, including in the Occupy movement – and with a lot of the disdain that has developed around executive compensation.
And I recall one moment when we had dinner with a senior executive of one of the major Wall Street firms that had to be bailed out. I asked what happened, and he said, ‘I’ll tell you point blank – we lost our way. We lost our core guiding principles and values.’
I asked if he was prepared to say that publicly and he said, ‘Absolutely not.’ Asked why not, he said his fellow executives wouldn’t do it. ‘Well, the public knows it anyway,’ I said. At that point I felt as a public leader that I had to get more involved and do my thing to create positive change. And the challenge is not just in business – it is across all organizations.
Can you really teach leadership competence?
That’s the challenge – that’s the question in the background. My own strong sense is that over the past 10 years, there has been an enormous amount of empirical research. It supports the view that a strong culture is linked to organizational success over long periods of time. Cultures that are strong are inherently more ethical – there is less risk of wrongdoing. Relationships are of a different nature than in organizations with low levels of trust and a lot of fear and dissonance.
So a lot of the research is very relevant, and there are educational opportunities to use it – for example, around emotional intelligence and communication.
Do you do a lot of reading on the subject?
Yes and I always have. I don’t read about leaders in history so much, but I tend to read the material of writers like Jim Collins and a lot of published research in academic journals.
Through the oil sands and pipeline controversies, the energy industry is often painted by its foes as unethical. Is that fair?
There is a reality – that perception does exist – but I would describe it as the level of trust being very low. Trust is a very qualitative thing but once it starts breaking down, an industry – energy in this case – has trouble presenting its views or information. It’s not viewed as objective or credible. Everything becomes much more difficult, more costly. You can’t get things done.
With these two pipelines – Northern Gateway and Keystone XL – all the fundamentals are in place to build them, in terms of technology, regulatory support and, broadly, government interest. Where it seems to be breaking down is in the absence of public trust.
Had industry leaders been more focused in a sensitive way a longer time ago, it’s possible we wouldn’t be in this position. It takes long periods to build or rebuild trust.
What has been learned from the BP spill?
There is still some shock and trauma, maybe unprocessed trauma, around that event. It is very challenging for the industry – the reality that environmental catastrophe is truly possible if we don’t manage ourselves properly and lead our businesses properly, and if we don’t develop the right kind of culture. At the heart of the BP issue was a failure of culture. You saw it permeate right down.
Is there concern that the Haskayne program will be perceived as a public relations exercise?
If there is an important theme, it is about substance and depth. We are really trying to encourage the development of young leaders who evolve into taking on senior responsibilities where they will bring a lot more insight and depth.
In your life, did you have role models?
Many people I worked with had a profound influence. Going way back, ARC Financial was formed in partnership with Power Corp. of Canada. The Power executives, in how they made decisions, had an influence. They were very thoughtful, very strategic.
Both my parents have been very inspiring – they had extraordinarily challenging life experiences through the war, and they both developed enormous determination. My father, Gus, grew up in Amsterdam and my mother [Betsy]grew up in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony, and she actually spent four years of her life in a [Japanese]concentration camp. Those are the real big challenging experiences you would wish on no one.
How important is it to know when to leave the top post, which has been a challenge for Research In Motion and many other companies?
It is a huge part of leadership. For leaders who are building organizations, if they are truly serving the long-term interests of the company, they will be very deliberate and thoughtful about this. They will really try to discern where their own interests stop and start.