Influencing Nenshi

Wow, I influenced Nenshi’s thinking in a big way. Well, okay it was me and many other voices and cultural assets, but I was a part of it.

While videotaping Nenshi talking at the EPCOR centre about livable cities, I confirmed a rarely acknowledged fact: leadership is not one person; it is an ecology of influences. To hear my mayor talk intelligently about transit oriented land development and community development is a big step up for Calgary and a long time coming.

Ten years ago I was part a non-partisan policy group called Canada25 looking into what made cities great. Naheed was the lead editor and I was part of an urban design research team. You can find the paper (and my name among others) here. Much of the policies you hear from Nenshi today can be traced directly back to some of the research we did.

But of course, it’d be facetious not to recognize where our urban design group drew their thinking from. And that person is none other than Jane Jacobs, the person with no formal training that revolutionized the urban design discipline. It was her keen sense of observation and sensitivity to human relationships that allowed her to figure out how urban spaces affected the health of a community.

It is through her work decades ago that we are now able to find some expression of it through Nenshi as Calgary’s mayor. However, our small urban design group played a critical part in refreshing Jane Jacob’s leading edge work for our context. Ideas do create change; they just take a long time to find good soil to grow in.

There is a significant hazard in all this though. The lessons that gets passed on may be the wrong ones. What made Jane Jacobs’ ideas powerful is not so much the ideas (having pedestrian walking areas or having lots of transit) but the way in which she understood how urban design works. Slavishly copying the specifics of her ideas misses the point of what it takes to build a sustainable community.

Sidebar: This is part of a more general problem of our tendency to see a solution that works in one context, import it without alteration into our context, find that it doesn’t work and then dismissing the person who created the solution.

Nevertheless, I find it tremendously hopeful that good ideals can work. It just takes a long time and takes a lot of people working on it.

Lessons from TEDxCalgary has exploded in popularity as an online place to hear and see ideas from really interesting people from the around the world. Now that has licensed their name to encourage independent TED-like conferences, us locals can also participate in person.

Last Thursday April 26th, a group of distinguished speakers and over one hundred attendees participated in TEDxCalgary to think about Humanity 3.0. It was a superbly organized event, and I was inspired to meet so many people concerned about the biggest issues facing humanity today.

If you missed it, not to worry. I was assured by Rahim Sajan, the curator, that the presentations will be made available online eventually.

In the meantime, I’m reflecting on what I responded to, what I didn’t, and what if anything has shifted in me.

This was a day of story-telling, a tradition that no doubt reaches back millions of years to people sitting around the campfire and sharing stories. In an institutionalized civilization like ours, it can seem like a deeply magical and moving experience.

But just telling stories by itself doesn’t make it meaningful. It might be moving, but not necessarily meaningful. It might also be very meaningful, but we aren’t yet ready to be moved by it. How are we to tell the difference?

Nick Nissley of the Banff Centre spoke about narrative competence, the ability to elicit stories from others. Implied is that those stories actually help people make sense of both our internal and external world. Steinback’s stories, although fiction, tell us deep truths about ourselves that illuminate what Greg Hunter highlighted about cognitive dissonance. While good journalists like Bill Moyers can bring to our attention the undercurrents of current events.

What struck me was that the while the personal stories were tremendously moving – Nick Nissley’s childhood in an orphanage and Jay Baydala’s turbulent upbringing – it was the larger life story that made them meaningful. When Nick connected with the history of Hersheys and their contribution to the orphanage and when Jay made the link between extreme poverty and his lack of voice, their lives found expression.

I’m more convinced that focusing on understanding just yourself will get you stuck. Like the students in Freedom Writers who discover the Holocaust, people find meaning when the vast stories of human achievement and failure become “personal”.

Artist and poet Sheri-D Wilson exemplifies this. Despite my discomfort with “new age-ness”, I was warmed by Sheri-D’s wandering and sometimes irreverent story about her life journey. Perhaps it was because she highlighted how much more you can learn from life than from formal education. From experiencing her own mortality to seeing apartheid to stumbling upon great teachers, she has had a far richer education than me.

Of course, when most people (and I include myself in that group) are factory-farmed human beings as Ken Low put it, it’s hard for society to learn “in the wild” so-to-speak. 12 years of compulsory schooling does some damage by teaching us how to conform, how to accept learning from authority, and how to get good at narrow disintegrated fields of study.

Luckily, human beings are resilient, and they can learn to become free-range human beings. To see Grant Neufeld dedicate his life to social activism and Gena Rotstein embark on an adventure to change people’s ideas of philanthropy, I felt a deeper commitment to be bold in my own efforts to be free-range, organic, and fair trade!

With all this diversity of human experience, it was almost jarring to see a TEDx talk by Daniel Pink attempting to convince us that money doesn’t work as an incentive for any work that requires a modicum of creativity. His talk was entertaining, well-reasoned, and worth sharing, but seriously, when did we arrive at this stage in society where we have to be talked out of thinking that we are motivated by money? People will do a lot for status, for love, for fear, and people will also do a lot to fight injustice or to make a difference. However, in a material world driven by economics thinking, it’s easy to get everyone to believe that success is determined by money alone. I hope that we will find a new way of thinking beyond economics.

The day was enjoyable and I was sad to have to leave it early. My opinion is that TEDx makes for tasty snacks, but 10 – 18 minutes is a short window of time into a speaker’s thoughts and ideas. It forces the speakers to contort their message to fit into a nice-looking box. In the end, it is kind of like eating pre-processed food. It tastes great, but it’s not as good for you as preparing your own dishes from scratch.

Nevertheless, inspiration can sometimes call upon our best voice to speak up more frequently and more passionately.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

Distinguishing between truth-tellers and pundits

Last time, I introduced the roles of prophets, critics, and truth-tellers in enriching the ecology of leadership. I failed to mention however that there is an implied assumption that those truth-tellers and prophets are adaptive.

This is, of course, not the case.

Pundits, deniers, and “false” prophets that disguise themselves as truth-tellers are plentiful. There are still so-called scientists who push the notion that AIDS is caused by poverty. And every few years, we discover one group or another who foretell the end of the world.

What about global warming or intelligent design or the oil sands? How is the leader to distinguish between one polished voice from another?

Here are a few immediate, but conventional answers that come to mind:

  • It feels right.
  • It comes from an expert.
  • It serves my purpose.

See the problem? While each of those responses might very well be adaptive (avoiding dark alleyways because it feels dangerous or trusting your accountant to do your taxes), it doesn’t allow us to determine whether those responses are valid in new situations.

For instance, once I was sitting in the back seat of a taxi white-knuckled in Barbados. The driver was driving on the wrong side of the road! Fortunately, it turns out that my gut was wrong because being an ex-British colony, they drive on the left side of the road.

The key to distinguishing one voice from another is in a phrase: understand its provenance.

What does this mean?

It means that we must understand where that voice comes from and how it was constructed and tested.

If you want to know whether tobacco is harmful to your health, you don’t just look at the “two sides” of the research and weigh them. You also look at how the researchers tested their theories, how their research was funded, and what their priorities were. If you also understand history, then you would also understand why you would look at corporate-backed research with suspicion.

If you want to know whether your intuition is right, you act on it, but also check it with reality. You make sure that the intuition you have developed is appropriate for the circumstances.

The challenge for leaders is that they don’t have the time to re-assess everything the organization does. However, the leader does need to investigate more deeply the most critical areas in their organization.

Back to the original question. How is a leader to distinguish between one voice and another? Here would be my tips for the leader:

  • Cultivate a broader range of experiences and knowledge so that your intuition will more likely lead you in the right direction.
  • Conscientiously find authorities or resources whose provenance you do trust and remember that no one source tells the entire story.
  • Make sure that you are developing a broader sense of purpose so that you serve the purpose of people and life.

In an age of much relativism, sometimes it’s easy to say that I have my opinion and you have your opinion and that is that.

Unfortunately, opinions have consequences. In the words of my old English teacher Mr. McCrae, “There may be many right answers, but there are definitely wrong answers.”

So as leaders, let’s continuously strive to hear those right voices.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

The Prophet, The Truth-Teller, and The Critic

Continuing from the last article, we know that leadership is not just a position. But there are many roles played within a healthy ecology of
leadership. What are some of the roles played in this ecology of leadership? How then can you cultivate these roles in the ecology?

Here are three roles that often goes unmentioned in traditional leadership texts.


Although we immediately think of a religious martyr, the prophet plays a critical part in helping communities shift. The prophet is someone who sees what society is blind to and then confronts society with it.

Perhaps they see that the water resources are being poisoned or that human beings are treated unjustly. In any case they, like the Greek mythological priestess Cassandra, foretell disaster, but are believed by no one. It is a given that prophets are attacked or exiled or killed for their efforts.

Yet we need these self-sacrificing individuals to bring attention to the biggest challenges the community faces. Without them, we would be unprepared for
disasters. Prophets are like canaries in the mines who warn of what we, the main body, have yet to come to grips with.

Remember when David Suzuki seemed like a fringe environmentalist dismissed as an extremist? Today he has become more mainstream and even Wal-mart is listening.

Who are the prophets for your organization and which ones should you pay attention to? Hint: you are unlikely to find them inside your organization and
they likely have spent a great deal of time on the frontiers of knowledge.


While the prophet speaks loudly the unvarnished truth, the truth-teller investigates and simply reveals the truth. A democracy whose population is blind
to the realities of life cannot possibly make a good and free decision. At the same time, it’s also not possible for a citizen to be an expert in every field
of study. Thus we need people who can be trusted to interrogate reality and bring back what they discover.

In modern society,  look at the Pullitzer prize winners for investigative journalism ( These are people who spend months checking
facts, digging beneath issues, questioning people, and exposing problems unseen by the masses. Without these dedicated truth-finders and tellers, society would not be able to self-correct.

Organizations need people who care less about the existing formal authority structure and more about getting to the bottom of things. Who are the
truth-tellers in your community?


Once upon a time, the King would hire a court jester. That jester had a difficult but important role to play. His role was to criticize the King without
incurring the mortal wrath of the king. The critic plays a similar role to the truth-teller except that the truth is directed at the formal authorities.
Consequently, the critic must find a way to be heard without being killed.

Many of the thoughtful comedians today call attention to our human foibles. We laugh but we also think. Jon Stewart of the Daily Show is a brilliant example of how using “fake” news calls attention to the real news. He manages to criticize political establishments, media outlets, and other powers-that-be without getting cancelled… a feat only the finest jester can accomplish.

Leaders need their own jesters or critics. Formal leadership tends to create an unthinking compliance in the followers. If you are a leader, how are you protecting the free thinkers who challenge your decisions but in ways that are respectful?

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

Leadership is an Ecology not a Position

Last time, I provided a more detailed description of what leadership is. Today I wanted to explore this notion that leadership is more an ecology than a formal position or person.

In any organization, we all recognize that there are formal authorities (managers, directors, supervisors) and then there are informal authorities (people we would naturally go to when we need help). We intuitively understand that we can’t look at an org chart and expect to understand the dynamic relationships in the organization.
In other words, leadership can’t be understood by looking at the positions in an org chart.
Instead if we look at the organization like an ecological system, we can see that there are a distribution of roles played by a variety of people. Most are part of the “mainstream” community who form the stable base of the company.

However, there are always leading edge elements – those that push the community to adapt – and trailing edge elements – those that prevent the community from adapting. Good leadership resides in the leading edge. But who are these people in the leading edge elements? And are you one of them?

Throughout history, there have always been key people who pushed to help society progress in new ways. Rachel Carson brought attention to the use of DDT and other pesticides on people. Nelson Mandela helped to steer South Africa through the ending of apartheid. Our very own Tommy Douglas introduced universal health care to Canada, something we take for granted. These leaders overcame the inertia of the group and mitigated active opposition to make mainstream that which was once controversial.

Surrounding these famous leaders though are a host of other leaders. Mandela drew inspiration from Ghandi and Che Guevera. Rosa Parks, who sparked the civil rights movements in the US, spent years training as an activist. No man or woman is an island. Like Shackleton’s team, we need people who can read the stars, or build new solutions to old problems or tap into our indomitable spirit.

And in this I find inspiration from that fact that formal leadership isn’t the only way to lead. We can start the leadership journey today by paying attention to what is needed by the community to face its challenges.

Next time, I want to identify some of these different roles in the leading edge and how you can invite some of these roles into your life.

Chris Hsiung
Better Life… Better Business