Friday, February 19, 2010

Leafs Army

Last Christmas, I asked for and received (thank-you, family! ) two books as gifts. As a die-hard and long-suffering Leafs fan ( ever noticed that Leafs fans use hyphenated descriptors to indicate their level of pain? ) I asked for "Leafs Abomination" by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. Also, as a devoted student of history and politics, I asked for "A Soldier First" by retired General Rick Hillier. Both promised to be great reading, which they indeed proved to be, but little did I realize that they would be about the same thing. Consider these summaries.

In "Leafs Abomination", Feschuk and Grange traced the sordid history of the Toronto Maple Leafs since their last Stanley Cup win in 1967, which, satirically, is the price of their book! Most casual fans know the long litany of failure that has plagued the team: Harold Ballard, poor drafting, ridiculous trades, underachieving players, and fans who can best be described as bored and boring. But this book goes further and starts to raise questions about the corporate culture at the heart of the Leafs' woes. After Ballard, the team has been controlled ( not owned per se ) by a changing cast of people who, in their real careers, are startlingly successful, and whose dedication to the Leafs cannot be questionned. Yet, the team still flounders. The book tries to answer the question "why is this the case?" and boils it down to three essential things: lack of visionary leadership, in-house rivalry among the major controllers, and a fan base who are incorrectly characterised as loving the team too much: the book claims the fans don't love the team enough. There are so many facets to these three items, it would take a blog as long as a book to summarize them. Suffice to say that Feschuk and Grange have hit the nail on the head. As long as the current controllers ( Richard Peddie, Larry Tanenbaum, and the Teachers Pension Plan ) own the team, and as long as fans continue to flock to the ACC to watch the futility on ice, nothing will change. An owner along the lines of Larry Illitch in Detroit is needed: deep pockets, yes, but a real vision of what the team should be and what is needed to win.

In "A Soldier First", Hillier sets out to tell his life story. If the book were only that, it would be fair reading. But Hillier goes into minute detail about how decisions were made in the Department of National Defence, and what was needed to change the culture of that organization. Hillier describes the shameful treatment of our military by not only the government, but the public as well. It is writing that almost brings tears to the eyes of the reader. The waste, the dithering, the politics of military decision making is pathetic and heart breaking. When Hillier witnessed all this as he rose up the ranks, he vowed that he would try to do something about it if he ever came into a position where he could influence things. Happily, that happened in 2002, when he became Chief of Defence Staff. He began to move the mountain that was, as he described it, the "risk averse" beurocracy that was NDHQ in Ottawa. The change also involved "recruiting the nation", which was an effort by the troops to make themselves more visible and of greater service to the general public. Hillier worked a major miracle to achieve these goals, but the work continues.

The lessons of all this? Any organization needs strong leadership in order to succeed. Unfortunately, today's concept of strong leadership is more like "strong management." Both books suggest that today's leaders in politics, the military, business, sports, dare I say education, are all managers: they do not effect real or meaningful change because they are afraid to take risks, they have no true vision of what their enterprise is and should be, and they are unable to communicate their vision and the need to take risks to their followers or to the public at large. Managers want to "manage" or simply steer their group through the turbulent waters of whatever enterprise they do, with a minimum of worry, a minimum of fuss, and close to the same results as always. That's how success is measured: not by achievement, but by how hassle-free the managers have done their jobs. Leaders like Rick Hillier are needed: intelligent, eloquent shit disturbers. For the Leafs, Feschuk and Grange hold out hope for Brian Burke: intelligent, eloquent, and a shit disturber in his own right.

I have always been fascinated by studying leadership. I have read memoirs and biographies about Margaret Thatcher, Caesar, Pierre Trudeau, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Macdonald, MacArthur, Napoleon and Wellington, and the list goes on. The abiding things which unite all these leaders is a strong vision, an iron will to carry the vision to a successful conclusion, and the intelligence and communication skills to tell people why their vision is good. I'd love to have Rick Hillier for Prime Minister of Canada some day: or maybe president and general manager of the Leafs after the fans and media ride Brian Burke out of town on a rail.