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Jim Gray is a speaker, communication skills coach, principal of Media Strategy Inc. in Toronto, and the author of How Leaders Speak. (John Morstad For The Globe and Mail)
Jim Gray is a speaker, communication skills coach, principal of Media Strategy Inc. in Toronto, and the author of How Leaders Speak. (John Morstad For The Globe and Mail)

LEADERSHIP LAB

Lessons learned from Wynne’s sweep to power Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

A few years ago, I attended a friend’s 60th birthday party in downtown Toronto.

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Ontario cabinet minister Kathleen Wynne was there. I’d never met her, although I’d long seen her in the news media.

I’ve worked with senior executives and politicians for a long time, and I’m hard to impress, but at that party I was blown away by Ms. Wynne’s charisma and warmth. Everyone – and everything – seemed to revolve around her.

Was it because she was the province’s influential Minister of Transportation? Only partly – I’ve seen mighty business and political figures standing alone in crowded rooms, uneasy, self-conscious, and unapproachable. Power doesn’t necessarily convert to connection.

In early 2013, Ms. Wynne became Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and Premier, presiding over a minority government. Many predicted a short reign. Last week’s stunning majority win proved them wrong, and her exceptional interpersonal skills were on full display.

We can learn a great deal from Ms. Wynne and her victory, lessons that can help us in our careers, and in our lives. They’re not complicated, but they can be profound.

Embrace the old rules of engagement

In our malevolent social media age, meanness of spirit – online and off – frequently appears to trump decency. We’ve been reminded that engaging others with a smile and respect, whether they agree with us or not, pays incredible dividends.

Being nice doesn’t mean being weak, or obsequious. In fact, it means the opposite. It means you have the self-awareness to get out of your own head, and the courage to reveal something of yourself.

An increasing amount of work is no longer done face-to-face. Ensure that when you do get to meet with colleagues, customers and stakeholders, it’s meaningful.

Negativity can sink you

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak ran a bold yet flawed campaign.

His promise to cut 100,000 public service jobs created consternation among those who’d be affected, but few government workers were likely to have voted for him anyway. The much larger damage was done among Ontarians who feared the effects of the reduction on education and health care.

What’s the lesson? We have to take on tough stuff in our careers all the time, and every job requires dealing with negativity. But there’s a huge difference between dealing with it, and creating it.

Mr. Hudak created it.

As a media and presentation skills coach, I can tell you that a negative statement has several times the power of a positive one. If you have to communicate a negative, think it carefully through first.

Credibility counts

During the campaign, and notably during a shaky television debate with her opponents, Ms. Wynne took her lumps over the Liberals’ cancellation of two planned Toronto-area gas plants, shortly before the 2011 provincial election.

(Ms. Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, pulled the plug on the plants, costing Ontario taxpayers an estimated $1-billion.)

Ms. Wynne apologized repeatedly for the decision, and enough voters were convinced of her sincerity.

Mr. Hudak, conversely, could never persuade the electorate that his promise to create a million jobs in Ontario was anything more than sloganeering. Challenged continually on his math, he stuck to his guns – riding his pony into the ground.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who had brought about the election by refusing to support the Liberals’ budget in May, was slow out of the gate. She never seemed to be able to articulate a compelling rationale for bringing the government down, at least one that most Ontarians bought.

Lessons learned

1) When you make a mistake, or are part of an organization that did, apologize – repeatedly, if you have to. You need to. It’s expected.

2) When enough people are telling you that your numbers don’t add up, you have a problem. As with any difficult issue, ignoring it, or minimizing it, won’t make it go away. Indeed, the longer you let it go without dealing effectively with it, the more potent it becomes.

3) Have a story. Make sure it’s tight, and that the logic is sound. Test it under fire. All good? Now push it out, early and often. Repetition leads to communication success.

Inspiration rules

Cynics will contend that voters perceived Ms. Wynne as merely the least problematic of three mediocre choices, and that may be true.

But here’s the point – without a naturalness and authenticity that makes people feel good about themselves, she may not have been that choice.

On election night, in a strong, gracious acceptance speech, Ms. Wynne promised “to build Ontario up for everyone in the province,” and whatever your political affiliation, you have to buy into that.

A client, whom I admire, says: “In business or politics, a leader is someone who inspires people.”

Ms. Wynne has certainly earned the right to try.

Jim Gray, a former reporter, is a senior communications adviser in Toronto. He serves organizations at the senior executive level, developing strategy, managing issues, and providing expert crisis, presentation and media skills coaching. E-mail: jgray@mediastrategy.ca.

(Disclaimer: I write this having campaigned door to door twice for my friend Vic Gupta, the PC candidate in Richmond Hill, during the recent election.)

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