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David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo (Jim Ross/Jim Ross)
David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo (Jim Ross/Jim Ross)

Leadership: David Johnston

'Create a nest, encourage the eagles to fly' Add to ...

As a young man, David Johnston wanted to play professional hockey. "I'm 68 now so that's probably not on the cards," says Mr. Johnston, who was twice selected to the All-American hockey team while at Harvard University. "But I love that game. In many ways, I wish I had pursued that opportunity when I was 21, but I studied for the law instead."

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After Harvard, Mr. Johnston went on to complete law degrees at Cambridge in England and Queen's University. He has held numerous academic positions, including dean of the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario and principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University. He is currently president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo, a job he's had since 1999.

His wizardry at fundraising is renowned, first with McGill and then with the Campaign Waterloo effort, which raised nearly double its $260-million target, reaching $515-million in June, 2009.

"When I die, my tombstone will read, [from Luke 16.22]'And it came to pass, that the beggar died,' " says Mr. Johnston. "We're all involved in it, but I suppose I'm chief cheerleader."

His definition of leadership is very simple: Leadership is recognition of your total dependence on the people around you.

"You try to empower," he says. "You create a nest and encourage the eagles to fly."

He believes the key to organization is having a tactical sense of what your job is. He sees his role as president of the university as a general manager's job, so he tries hard to operate strategically, recognizing that his colleagues execute better than he does.

"I delegate an enormous amount," says Mr. Johnston, who doesn't consider himself particularly organized. "My desk is clean in the evening. A lot doesn't stay very long on my desk; it goes to other people."

Finding time for reflection is important to Mr. Johnston, who is a professor of law and the author of 20 books including Getting Canada Online: Understanding the Information Highway . He writes both in the office and at his home, 11 minutes from the university in Mennonite country.

"I'm a bit of a jogger," he says. "It clears my head when I run. If I'm trying to do a speech that's more complicated, I'll think it through then."

He believes that we are living through one of the most fascinating periods of history right now, with Waterloo at the heart of it.

"The communications revolution is as profound as any revolution we've seen and moving faster than any revolution we've ever seen," he says. "And here we are in Canada, and here we are in Waterloo region, with some mastery of these new communications tools and the ability to perfect them to improve the human condition in the world."

One question Mr. Johnston finds interesting is whether you can teach entrepreneurship. Is it nature or nurture?

"We think a lot about that at the university," he says. "I'm not sure how much you can actually teach it in the didactic sense - the old sense of getting inside someone's head by lessons and formulae. What you can do is create an environment in which entrepreneurs thrive. That's what we do in co-op. We have business-associated programs in all six of our faculties."

"The final thing is - and it comes back to the notion of leadership - it's empowering other people," he says. "And entrepreneurs are people who have a sense of empowerment, of doing things better. They have the courage of the innocents, which is to ask, 'Why are we doing it this way? Because we've always done it that way?' But not just why, why, why - but why not? Having put forth the question, what's the resolution?"

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