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The following was adapted from a speech by former prime minister Brian Mulroney at the St. Francis Xavier University convocation in Antigonish, N.S., on May 3.

Some years ago, the legendary New York Times columnist James Reston came to lunch with me at 24 Sussex. After an impressive "tour d'horizon" Scotty, as he was called, said: "Prime Minister, for the last 25 years I have opposed every single policy that your friend Ronald Reagan has ever stood for." Then he added: "And, during that same period, Ronald Reagan was twice elected governor of California and twice elected president of the United States."

This self-deprecatory observation was delivered somewhat ruefully, as if Mr. Reston were perplexed by his own admission. But, to so wise an observer the answer surely should have been very clear. It's called leadership – that ineffable, and sometimes magical quality that sets some men and women apart so that millions will follow them as they conjure up new visions and invite their countrymen to dream big and exciting dreams.

In his seminal work on leadership, James MacGregor Burns segregates "transactional" from "transforming" leadership. He writes that it is the transforming leader who "raises the level of human conduct of both leader and led … who responds to fundamental hopes and expectations and who may transcend and even seek to reconstruct the political system rather than simply operate within it."

Time is the ally of leaders who placed the defence of principle ahead of the pursuit of popularity. And history has little time for the marginal roles played by the carpers and complainers and less for their opinions. History tends to focus on the builders, the deciders, the leaders – in education, health care, science, business, the arts as well as politics – because they are the men and women whose contributions have shaped the destiny of their nations.

Theodore Roosevelt had courageous leaders in mind when he spoke at La Sorbonne and said: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood ... who spends himself in a worthy cause, and who, at the best, knows in the end the triumphs of high achievement and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

In fact, "transforming leadership" – leadership that makes a significant difference in the life of a nation – recognizes that political capital is acquired to be spent in great causes for one's country. Presidents and prime ministers are not chosen to seek popularity. They are chosen to provide leadership. There are times when voters must be told not what they want to hear, but what they have to know.

Leaders must have vision and they must find the courage to fight for the policies that will give that vision life. Leaders must govern not for easy headlines in 10 days, but for better countries in 10 years – and they must be ready to endure the attacks that often accompany profound or controversial change, while they await the distant and compelling sounds of a verdict that only history and a more reflective nation can render in the fullness of time.

If ever you search for a lodestar to guide you through the gently unfolding decades of your lives, you may wish to consider a few lines from Judge Learned Hand, the greatest American jurist who was never appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many years ago he was invited to welcome immigrants to America – Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews, mostly poor and unlettered people from Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He defined for them, that day on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the citizenship ceremony, the spirit of liberty he hoped they would find in the life of their new country.

His words have universal reach. They apply to us all:

"The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right. The spirit of liberty seeks to understand the minds of other men and other women. The spirit of liberty weighs their interests against its own without bias. The spirit of liberty knows that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded. The spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near 2,000 years ago, taught mankind a lesson that it has never quite learned and never quite forgotten – that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest."

If you can incorporate into your lives some of the humility and generosity and wisdom contained in those words, it will be said of you one day that you have brought honour to your country, pride to your family and achievement to your life.

No one can ask for more.

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