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When Andy Byford took over at the Toronto Transit Commission in 2012, Canada's biggest public transit system was in a sorry state. Decades of underinvestment and uninspiring leadership had left the vast network of subway, bus and streetcar lines looking shabby and neglected.

With its metal tokens, paper transfers and dumpy maroon TTC jackets, the agency was, as Mr. Byford recently put it, "hopelessly old-fashioned." Worse, an "air of resignation" hung over the organization. People both within and without had given up believing it could ever get out of its rut. Frustrated commuters complained about ticket takers photographed sleeping in their booths and bus drivers who hopped off for extended coffee breaks while passengers waited on board.

Mr. Byford came along like a gust of fresh air. Bright-eyed, whip smart and seasoned by years in British and Australian transit agencies, he set about putting the TTC back on track.

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He rode the system from end to end, introducing himself to employees, taking notes on what needed fixing and even picking up litter with a plastic bag he carried around in his pocket. He made clean subway cars and station washrooms a priority. He showed up in person to field questions when there was a crisis such as a flooded station.

He introduced conveniences such as WiFi in subway stations. He sped up the roll-out of the Presto electronic fare card, something most other major transit systems had been using for years, even decades. He brought in managers to handle problems at groups of busy subway stops. He hired top-notch new executives for his leadership team, a number of them women, a novelty in the male-dominated TTC executive suite.

When the Spadina subway extension went millions over budget and fell behind schedule, he fired two senior executives and brought in new managers for the complex project. He had no time for slackers and "wreckers" in the TTC. In the old days, he said, "good people went unrecognized and bad people got away with murder." So the agency set up a random drug and alcohol testing program and introduced an integrity line so that employees could report illegal or unethical behaviour.

All of this buzzing activity made a difference. By the time Mr. Byford announced on Tuesday that he was leaving for a job in New York, there were real signs of progress at the TTC. Only months ago, the agency won a transit system of the year award, boasting improved results on reliability, cleanliness and even customer satisfaction.

Many TTC riders scoffed at that award. "Is this some kind of joke?" demanded a headline in the Toronto Sun. No one, including Mr. Byford, is claiming that the TTC is a paragon of efficiency. Broken air conditioners turned subway cars into saunas in the summer of 2016. Overdue new streetcars are still arriving in a trickle, although that's the fault of the manufacturer, not the TTC. The grumpy TTC driver is still a Toronto staple despite Mr. Byford's campaign to put customers first. Turning around a supertanker like the TTC, with a hidebound culture and stroppy union, was never going to be easy.

But there is good news, too. The experiment with a streetcar corridor through downtown along King Street is off to a promising start. That Spadina subway extension is finally opening next month. Mr. Byford says riders are going to love it. He is leaving on a high note.

His time at the TTC shows how important leadership can be for an organization. Effective leaders set a clear, ambitious goal – in this case, to haul the TTC into the 21st century. They make sure everyone in the organization understands that goal. They measure progress toward reaching it. They get out among the troops, leading by example. They are frank about the problems facing the organization, but positive about the future. They are stern with laggards, but lavish with praise for those who go the extra mile. They play down hierarchy and break down walls, giving everyone a chance to play a part.

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Mr. Byford didn't invent any of these ideas. You can find them in any management handbook. But he put them into practice with rare skill and zeal. He now heads to New York City Transit as chief executive. He calls it "arguably the toughest job in transit right now." They are lucky to have him. If anyone can fix New York's subway mess, it is Andy Byford.

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