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Dawn Calleja, editor of ROB magazine, Dec 2021Steph Martyniuk/The Globe and Mail

Each December for the past few decades, this magazine has named one lucky leader our CEO of the Year. For the most part, we’ve had a good run, from the somewhat staid (Michael Medline) to the brash (Hunter Harrison) to the downright controversial (Bill Ackman). But there’s one thing I’ve always regretted, and that’s not giving the title to Maple Leaf Foods chief executive Michael McCain in 2008. McCain was certainly in the running—in fact, he appeared on that month’s cover—but the general consensus was that the timing was wrong: It was just a few months after tainted meat from a Maple Leaf plant killed 22 people and made hundreds more ill. “Going through the crisis,” McCain told reporters at the time, “there are two advisers I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants. It’s not about money or legal liability—this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food.” To this day, McCain’s handling of the tragedy remains a model for leaders on how to take responsibility for what went wrong—and doing the hard work to fix it. (That year’s CEO of the Year, by the way, was a reluctant Prem Watsa, who spotted the source of the greatest financial crisis in decades—and made billions for Fairfax Financial in the process.)

Now that McCain is getting ready to step down after 24 years in charge of his family-controlled company, I’m feeling a bit wistful. There aren’t many leaders like him anymore. In January 2020, after Iran shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people (57 of them Canadians), McCain took to Twitter—from Maple Leaf’s corporate account, no less—to call out Donald Trump’s “irresponsible, dangerous, ill-conceived behavior.” He has since spoken out against mass shootings in the United States; that country’s criminalization of abortion; Vladimir Putin’s unconscionable bombing of Ukraine; and, of course, climate inaction (sustainability being an issue McCain cares about deeply—Maple Leaf became the world’s first major carbon-neutral meat producer in 2019).

None of McCain’s stances have been particularly controversial; what makes them stand out is his status as the CEO of a publicly traded company. These days, there seem to be just two kinds of corporate leaders: the ones who shy away from even the slightest ripple of dissension lest it harm their stock price, and the ones who actively court it—by, say, spreading dangerous conspiracy theories on Twitter and then spending US$44 billion to ensure they’re allowed to continue doing so.

McCain is different. He has thoughtful things to say about what’s happening in the world around him—much of which you’ll hear about in Trevor Cole’s interview with him and his successor in this month’s Exchange (“Fresh meat,” page 6). If you’re looking for even more inspiration, turn to page 23 to read about this year’s five CEO of the Year honourees. (Sorry, Michael—this wasn’t your year, either.)

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