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the ladder

David Labistour, 60, is the chief executive officer of Mountain Equipment Co-op, the Canadian retailer also known as MEC.

I grew up in a farming community in South Africa. I had the fortune, or misfortune, depending on how you look at it, to serve in active combat in what was then known as the Angolan War, which really was part of the Cold War. I learned a lot of leadership in that experience. I was a lieutenant in charge of a unit. I was 19 years old. It was real. You learn to have the courage to make decisions that affect peoples' lives. You have to do it. You have to make good decisions with imperfect information. You have to sometimes do it very quickly.

What very few people understand about combat is that it's more long stretches of boredom, punctuated by short moments of terror. To keep people motivated through that boredom, that's where leadership is most important. It was a fascinating experience.

It's either strength or a weakness that I always move on. For me, today and tomorrow is life and yesterday is a memory. I don't hang on to negative memories. It's probably one of the things I'm best at. I'm really good at moving on. All we have is today. Our future lies ahead of us.

In my last year at university, I had the opportunity to represent my country in sport. It was windsurfing. Being a young guy and following my passion, as all kids are told to do today, I left school four months before the end of my degree at the University of Cape Town. I was studying theatre. I was a terrible actor, but excelled at design – costume design, theatre design, lighting design and sound design – the behind-the-scenes stuff. I realized very quickly though that I was never going to make ends meet being a windsurfer. I wasn't good enough.

My first job was as a designer for a vertical manufacturer in Cape Town. I moved into the area that I was best at, which was product management. From there, my career grew.

I moved with my family to Vancouver in 1999. We had no work contacts. I had to start again. I assumed because I had international companies on my resume [such as Adidas and Woolworths, one of South Africa's top retailers] that I could get a job relatively easy. After six months, I hadn't been interviewed for one job. Things got pretty desperate. At some points, I had to decide whether to put gas in the car – because I was consulting and needed to drive places – or whether to buy food for the table.

So much of life is just timing and fortuitous coincidences. I got a consulting job at Aritzia, which lasted quite a while, but still struggled to make ends meet because it wasn't a full-time job. I scratched on a lot of doors and made a pest of myself, in a nice way. MEC was one of them. Then, MEC had a restructuring and changed a bunch of senior management. I applied for a job to head up the product department. On the same day I got that job, I got an offer on my house that I had to sell because I couldn't make ends meet. I turned the house offer down. I still live in that same house today.

In life, as you progress and you become more senior and you earn more and become management of organizations, you forget how many people live and for how many people just keeping food on the table and a roof over their head is a daily challenge. [My start in Canada] was a lesson for me … to be in a position where I had to sell my house because I was broke, in spite of the fact that I was working. We aren't the average people. We are exceptionally fortunate. When you look at the customers – the people who walk into your stores – they aren't necessarily as fortunate as we are. They have to make compromises and choices when they buy stuff.

All the way along I have been so lucky to be exposed to change: Whether it be a change in jobs, change in political paradigms, change in countries, change in industries. As a result, I'm not scared of change. I embrace it. I know it's necessary and something you have to keep looking for. If you don't, change will find you, unprepared for it.

I tell this to young people when they ask for advice: My whole career, I focused opportunities on where I thought I was good and where I thought I had skill. My first mistake was following my passion. You have to have a passion in life, but at the same time your work and your passion don't always have to be the same thing. Start with self-awareness. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Train your weaknesses but raise your strengths. You're always going to learn from and grow from the tough times and the mistakes you make, so don't shy away from those. I learned more from the mistakes I've made and from the hardships that I've had than from any mentor.

Until this job, I've never aligned my passion with my work. I've always followed what I believed I would be good at and be able to be good at. As a result, I've worked for some people I haven't enjoyed, I've worked for some terrible bosses, but I have learned a lot, I've grown a lot.

As a leader, what I try to do is to surround myself with people smarter than me. My job is to align the people, the culture and the organization to the outcomes we are looking for. That's my key job; strategy, culture and people. And then, try to enable people to hit those outcomes. I think that's the role of leadership. It's not to manage. That's what I try and do.

As told to Brenda Bouw. This interview has been edited and condensed