He held the biggest, most complex senior executive job in the country—as boss of a sprawling multinational with 125,000 employees and a budget exceeding $20-billion. But General Walter Natynczyk’s retirement after four years as Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff also ended a personal journey—a 37-year forces career that saw a raw 17-year-old Winnipeg kid go on to become the country’s top military officer at a time when Canadians were fighting a war in Afghanistan. We caught up with him a few days after the ceremony that installed his successor, General Tom Lawson.
How will you cope with the extra time when you are no longer at the centre of things?
I was never really comfortable in the centre, but I’m not used to free time either. Since 1998, when I went to Bosnia to be Canadian contingent commander, I’ve been on a treadmill and it feels as if someone else has been controlling the speed. Once in a while, they find the incline button. The only choice is to pick up the pace or fall off, and I’ve chosen to run faster.
What will you do now?
I’m going to take a break for a few months. I’ve consulted with some of my international colleagues—other chiefs of defence—and their advice is to take four months or so. As my colleague from the Netherlands said—using a Dutch phrasing—“empty your head.” My wife and I have built a little lake house north of Kingston. It’s still being fitted out.
In what ways was your job like being a corporate chief executive?
It’s been a CEO’s or chief operating officer’s job, and I’ve been reporting to the board, which is the Government of Canada. As I said to the Defence Minister, he represents the mayor of a fairly large city and I’ve been his CEO or COO. Stuff happens in that city and we are responsible for all of it.
Was your major accomplishment to win more respect for your people?
My bread-and-butter has always been mission success for Canada and protecting Canadian interests. That’s why I’m in uniform. But you cannot achieve a mission without caring for your men and women, and their families, and ensuring they have all the tools they need to do their job.
Was there one regret?
I had a regret every time I lost a sailor, soldier or airman. Our business is a life-and-death, high-risk job.
Executives often use the language of war, such as “blitz,” “invasion,” or “in the trenches.” But is business really the same as war?
I would [rather] use the language of leadership—discipline, loyalty and strong leadership succession. I would talk of values, humility and compassion.
Didn’t you once say you would have preferred to stay at the rank of captain?
One of the things I learned long ago was to declare success early. I spent seven years as a captain, and I felt I had been maxed out [in my career]. A sense of humility enables us to do our job better. When I talk to our leadership groups—our baby colonels and baby generals—one of my lines is “ambition is the enemy.” Our ability to act as a team gets undermined by a lack of trust if you put yourself first.
Do you feel relieved not to be running the forces in what will likely be a time of retrenchment?
Over my career, the Canadian Forces and National Defence have been on a roller coaster with regard to resources. One never knows what the future may bring because it is tied, unfortunately, to conflict. The only operation over my tenure we were able to predict was the Vancouver Olympics. We will always be challenged by budgets. But you can always afford your priorities—the operational output of men and women who have to go in harm’s way.
Do leaders have to stay close to operations?
One of my lines is: The further you are from the sound of the guns, the less you understand. And among the phrases I use in Ottawa is: Topics may be well-briefed, but [those briefings] don’t actually explain the nature of our business. I believe in leadership by walking around.
What is your advice to your successor?
What I say to everybody: Listen to your people.