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Thoughts on Leadership

Notes for an address given at Justice Canada’s 2008 Managers’ Forum 

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

Check against delivery

I would like to thank Mr. Simms for inviting me to speak to you today about leadership and linguistic duality.

Since I became Commissioner of Official Languages, I have had ample opportunity to observe the relationship that exists between leadership and language.

How can bilingualism and respect for linguistic duality become key characteristics of leadership in the public service? What would happen if bilingualism and respect for linguistic duality were actually considered values, and not just obligations or boxes to be checked? What impact would this have on the recruitment, promotion and behaviour of employees?

As I have mentioned quite a few times since I took office, there are three reasons for public servants to master both official languages: to serve the public, which has the right to service in English or French; to manage other public servants, who have the right to work in English or in French; and, perhaps just as importantly, to understand the country as a whole.

Yet all too often, language requirements in the public service are seen as obligations rather than opportunities, as shortfalls rather than essential skills, as obstacles to overcome rather than communication tools.

One senior public servant told me that a colleague once said to him: "I just got my C level—now I’ll never have to speak French again!"

In order to effectively participate in the public service and acquire its values and competencies, mastery of both official languages must be seen as a matter of leadership, respect, communication and openness rather than one of regulation, obligation and tests.

How can you be a leader if you can’t understand those you seek to lead? How can you respect your employees if you can’t communicate with them in the official language of their choice? How can you respect members of the public if you do not respect their language rights? How can you respect elected representatives if you cannot communicate with them in their preferred official language?

Above all else, it is a question of respect.

There is a tendency in any complex organization to translate values into burdens.

This means transparency becomes the burden of access to information; responsible financial management becomes the burden of auditing, internal auditing and program activity architecture. For its part, the value of linguistic duality becomes the burden of job classification, training and testing.

As a result, a kind of passive checklist is used during the staffing process. Does this person have a university degree? Check. Does he or she meet the language requirements? Check.

But linguistic duality is not only a prerequisite: it’s a value, and an essential characteristic of public sector leadership.

The famous "C" level for oral interaction requires that the person being evaluated be persuasive in his or her second language and communicate effectively with employees in their official language of choice. For example, managers must be able to motivate an employee to take on new responsibilities or show initiative. And, as someone from the Public Service Commission once told me, they should be able to testify in court or give a course.

These are not language criteria: they are leadership criteria.

Last June, I heard Jeffrey Gandz of the Ivey Executive Program and the Ivey Leadership Program talk about leadership and the importance of being able to influence and persuade people. That means being able to embody, convey, promote and implement values.

“If leaders don’t exhibit values, the values don’t exist,” he said.

I asked him how important it was for leaders to be able to communicate to the organization as a whole, as opposed to just the employees who report directly to them.

That, he said, was the distinction between a leader and a manager. You manage within a system; you lead across systems.

All this to say that, to be a leader in the public service, you have to be able to influence, persuade, motivate, stimulate and value all employees, in English and in French.  

It is almost a cliché in literature on leadership to say that hypocrisy is fatal to the credibility of leadership. Perceptions are not always fair. More than ever before, it is essential to lead by example.

Last June, the management firm Accenture once again praised Canada’s public service in terms of service delivery and efficiency. The study stresses that Canada has a “strong and compelling vision of value-led, citizen-centric service.”

This praise is well deserved. Canada's public servants are among the most professional and qualified in the world. Nevertheless, and the data in my first annual report back this up, linguistic duality has yet to be fully integrated into the public service. It remains a largely untapped potential resource and a key aspect of public service renewal.

Put differently, every time a citizen has trouble getting service in the official language of his or her choice, or is told “would you like to speak to someone who knows the file or who speaks French” or deals with a public servant who is obviously uncomfortable in his or her second language, the perception grows that French is an afterthought at the senior levels in Ottawa.

We are now witnessing a unique political environment in Quebec. Beyond the fact that there is a minority government, the electorate is divided into three groups—and two of these three groups are supporting political parties that have little or no interest in the rest of Canada.

This type of situation poses a formidable challenge for the federal government in its role as liaison between Quebec and the rest of the country.

If senior public servants don't set the tone and show leadership in times such as these, who will? What would the criteria be for a deputy who completely respects linguistic duality? What could he or she do to create an environment in which both languages have equal status?

There are the obvious things, of course: having a relationship with Francophone colleagues in French, ensuring that all communications to staff are in both languages, making it clear memos and documents that are prepared in French should be given the same careful attention as those prepared in English.

There is also the question of speaking to staff in Quebec, New Brunswick and wherever else people live and work in French—being able to address them and "stakeholder groups," a phrase universally used and understood in the public service, in either official language.

But there are other cultural and social reflexes that should also be part of leadership.

Since I became Commissioner, I have discovered that many of my Francophone colleagues are members of the National Arts Centre's French theatre program. They watch both Le Téléjournal and The National. They also watch Tout le monde en parle.

I'm not trying to show that they are fixated on Quebec. Far from it.

One of the things that has impressed me over these last several months is the extent to which my Francophone colleagues have chosen, early in their careers, to work in other regions of Canada. Similarly, several of my English-speaking colleagues have chosen to study or work in Quebec.

But I have come to realize that playing a leadership role in a public sector organization that respects linguistic duality means much more than simply being able to read a speech in French, conduct a meeting in which both languages are used or ensure that messages to staff go out in both languages.

It means creating a working environment where people know that you will understand the 35-page legal document being presented in French without having to wait for the translation. It means running a meeting where people are comfortable joking in either language.

More than that, it means knowing the cultural environment in which French-speaking executives and employees live: the newspapers they read, the television programs they watch, the movies they see, the theatres they support.

It means getting their jokes.

There was a time when Francophones aspiring to careers in the public service could expect to pass their entire working lives speaking only English. That is now unthinkable. 

There are many other ways in which the working lives of Francophones in the public service have changed. The culture has changed.

But we still have a lot of work to do. And if you are going to be leaders and not simply managers, you have to make linguistic duality one of your fundamental values.