Per ardua ad astra – through adversity to the stars

I am delighted to see a public service announcement about explorer David Thompson that has been aired repeatedly during prime time on CBC TV. Rick Hansen (the Man in Motion) narrates the short vignette. This is what he says:

“In 1788, David Thompson was working for Hudson’s Bay Company when he suffered an accident, breaking his leg so badly he almost died. But he didn’t die. It took him a year to learn to walk again. And in that year, he spent his time studying astronomy, navigation, and map-making. He looked at the maps at Hudson’s Bay Company, where he worked, and dreamed about what lay beyond their unfinished borders. He decided he wanted to finish those maps. And he did. David Thompson became the greatest mapmaker who ever lived, travelling 90,000 kilometres throughout North America, and mapping 4.9 million square kilometers.”

Since I was a child, the travels and accomplishments of David Thompson have caught my interest. The fact that Thompson overcame countless adversities in the wilderness (including the badly fractured leg) to become one of Canada’s greatest explorers shows that he had ‘The Right Stuff’. He’s a source of inspiration to contemporary explorers who seek to push back new frontiers in the sciences, arts and medicine.

The PSA video brought to mind a leadership article that I read in an issue of Harvard Business Review several years ago. The article Crucibles of Leadership, written by the late great management guru Warren Bennis and his colleague Robert Thomas, is a classic in management literature. Bennis and Thomas define crucibles as severe tests or trials in the lives of leaders. They are unplanned, transformative and often traumatic events. Crucibles force leaders to examine their values, question their assumptions and hone their judgment. These kinds of no-kidding experiences provide us with perspectives and invaluable skills that cannot be acquired during a seminar held in the comforts of a hotel conference room. Intense, real-life experiences are critical in the development of a complete leader.

I totally get what Bennis and Thomas are saying. I am uninspired by leaders whose life experiences have been confined to the settings of offices, boardrooms and urban civilized life and, consequently, whose skill sets are unidimensional. This may sound sadistic, but I actually prefer that my leaders have multiple scars, wounds and (figuratively) broken legs. I like to know that my leaders have faced the worst that life can deliver, have met the challenge and become better people. I like to know that my leaders have “been there, done that”.

The greatest leaders of history have all had crucible moments – Gandhi, Lincoln, Churchill, Mandela. My wife and I are currently watching the Ken Burns documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on Netflix. Both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt faced adversities (war and polio, respectively) that refined their characters. Both went on to serve capably as US presidents.

As I write this blog entry, I am aboard an aircraft flying from Calgary to Ottawa. Gazing below at the landscape’s rugged beauty from my window seat (which I prefer over an aisle), I think about David Thompson and the other early Canadians who traversed this vast land on foot and by canoe. It strikes me that Canada is blessed amongst nations. Our wilderness and extreme climate form part of our national identity. They have honed the characters of explorers, pioneers and homesteaders, including my great grandparents. These early Canadians catalyzed the settlement and growth of our emerging nation.

I am Canadian. I know how to load a backpack. I know how to paddle a kayak. I have been cold and wet in the back country of the Rockies. I like to think that these kinds of experiences as a youth in Canada gave me perspectives and skills that translated nicely to my later roles on the international stage.

Guides, Scouts, Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School introduce youth to our nation’s natural beauty, awesome grandeur and endless panoramas. I admire these organizations, as well as parents, for leading young people into our wilderness and enabling them to explore the limits of their mental, physical and emotional capabilities.

Our wilderness and climate should be regarded amongst Canada’s core competencies. It would be a shame if we did not fully allow these natural gifts to cultivate a unique national mindset and to strategically differentiate ourselves from other world citizens.

I applaud the HBC (Hudson’s Bay Company) History Foundation for producing the video vignette that showcases David Thompson’s achievements. Thompson and other early explorers can justifiably be upheld as distinctive and exemplary role models.

Our nation’s wide-open spaces beckon. Let’s embrace the wildness of our rugged terrain to forge extraordinary leaders with Thompson-like traits that inspire confidence and loyalty in their followers.

David Thompson taking an observation. C.W. Jefferys/Library and Archives Canada.

David Thompson taking an observation. C.W. Jefferys/Library and Archives Canada.

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