A Modest Lesson in Beta Leadership

By mid-November in central Alberta the sun doesn’t rise until after long after 8:00 a.m. By then, as a cottage resident you’ve likely witnessed some snow, raked your share of leaves, put your boat to bed, taken your dock out, listened to the honking cries of Canada Geese, and shivered a little to sub-zero temperatures in the morning.

By mid-November in central Alberta the sun doesn’t rise until after long after 8:00 a.m. By then, as a cottage resident you’ve likely witnessed some snow, raked your share of leaves, put your boat to bed, taken your dock out, listened to the honking cries of Canada Geese, and shivered a little to sub-zero temperatures in the morning.  If you committed, in a mildly mindless moment, to a meeting at ten a.m. in downtown Calgary, you’ll find yourself leaving home in the pitch dark. And, if you somehow packed a few other commitments into your day, chances are you’ll be returning in darkness, as well.

About an hour and a half into my drive south, and aided by a travel cup of McCafé, I found myself passing by Red Deer. On my left, my eye was drawn to an impressive new structure named the Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre. Instantly, like a door thrown open by a mighty gust of autumn wind, memories from another time blow through my consciousness.

It was in that moment that I smiled to myself, recalling a Dickens quote, from his immortal Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …” His haunting words framed my thoughts of the early days of my own Canada Games odyssey and memories.

It was over 25 years ago. I’m sure the Canada Games Council Board of Directors must have had some sober second thoughts that frigid, snowy morning in mid-February. Here I was, the freshly minted President of the ’95 Canada Games Host Society, arriving 15 minutes late in poorly fitting, casual attire for my inaugural meeting with the ‘up-town, Ottawa nights’ Council crowd.

You see, somehow the previous day, Air Canada found a way to lose my luggage between Grande Prairie, Alberta, and Charlottetown, PEI. When you’re six feet four, this inconvenient reality can present quite a problem. My meeting with the Council was but hours away and my faded jeans and old denim shirt weren’t going to cut it with that natty crew. The solution? Borrow some clothes!

Further complicating matters was the fact there was ‘no room at the inn.’ By the time Grande Prairie had been awarded the right to host the ’95 Games and had recruited their own Host Society leadership team, all rooms in Charlottetown were booked for the hoards attending the ‘91 Winter Games. Consequently, my motley contingent found themselves ensconced in a three-star, two-story motel in Summerside, an hour’s drive from the host city.

Upon finally arriving, and only after expressing obligatory apologies for tardiness, the Chair brought his late-comer up-to-date on the meeting’s proceedings. The focus of the agenda then shifted promptly to the delivery of my ’95 Games report.

Practically and symbolically, I’m sure I felt Council Directors gasping in disbelief and swallowing tough at my words. This seemingly not ready for prime-time President from the far corner of northwest Alberta, spoke of the shift and adoption of a Beta Leadership paradigm in organizing the ’95 Games. Resplendent in my flood pants, I painted a picture of a flat organization, which would focus as much on the present as on the future. It would be led by eighteen volunteer vice-presidents all who would report to the tardy one before them.

To Board Directors, it must have seemed that my words reflected a complete abandonment of long-held Alpha Leadership principles. What in heaven’s name did collaborative behaviour, creativity, innovation and teamwork have to do with the production of their blessed, two-week, multi-million-dollar, and nationally- televised event?

The question of the morning became, who from the Council’s Board of Directors would have the responsibility to rein in this quirky, country bumpkin? Quickly, the obvious choice became their long-standing Chair, whose own Games pedigree dated back to its inception in 1967, and his subsequent appointment by Pierre Trudeau himself. All eyes of the Board turned practically in unison in his direction.

In buying himself some additional time to properly choose his soon-to-be chastising words, the Chair asked for questions and comments from his high profile, severely biased Board of Directors. Several hands went up, all signalling the same type of structural-related question – only to be framed in different fashions.

After being bombarded relentlessly by their questions for close to a half an hour, it was becoming clear to yours truly that their remedy would likely be significant remedial measures. In short order, someone would need to correct this wayward Grande Prairie ship of fools. It would be the order of the day. Now then, it was over to the Board Chair.

However, just as the Chair pulled up his chair to review his copious notes, which would bring this Western upstart into line, the President of the ‘89 Host Society asked if he may have the floor.

In an effort to be synoptic in what he emphatically said, I offer the following:

“Having recently been through the process of successfully leading the ’89 Summer Games organization in Saskatoon, I’d say the ’95 Games President just may be on the right track. Times are changing. The knowledge economy is upon us. The Information Age is not far behind. Council needs to change. If you listened closely, you’d have heard him speak with conviction of excellence, achievement and success. Unfortunately, it’s just not the way you believe it should be organized, led, and done. But, ask yourself for a moment. What if he’s right? What if ‘of the people, for the people, and by the people’ is the leadership way of tomorrow?”

Clearly, it was a much-needed turning point in the meeting’s proceedings. For the first time in over an hour, the Council’s Board of Directors begrudgingly began to back away from their long-held, inward-looking positions.

One member of the Board even surrendered this sentiment, “Possibly, just maybe, his collaborative community idea could be good for the growth of our Games movement, particularly, in a time of stagnation and shrinking provincial and national fiscal support.”

And so, with a little help, it had its modest beginnings that day in Charlottetown. Beta Leadership, which underpinned the horizontally-built ‘95 Canada Winter Games, and their ultimate success, was rescued from the clutches of hierarchy and, thus, given life to grow another day.

Indeed, that frigid PEI morning symbolized both the best of times and the worst of times. Admittedly going forward there was much to learn about Beta Leadership with, certainly, a long, long way to go.

And, just as Dickens once prophesized, the road ahead will be marked by the milestones of both wisdom in one’s learning and some foolishness in dealing with the circumstances of living and leading.


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