Earlier this morning I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast discussion with Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario New Democrats at a time when her party has been wielding the balance of power and working to support the Province’s minority Liberal government. Far from being a dry presentation of platform issues, this discussion was specifically geared to address the topic of leadership through change and how to maximize opportunities as they are presented.
As she took the podium and addressed the audience, I was struck by Ms Horwath’s nature as a leader and began to understand why she appears to be gaining significant traction in the current political and economic landscape.
Whatever your beliefs (and mine is not to question or persuade either way) there were some great leadership lessons to be learned from simply watching this very eloquent and charming woman handle the room.
To begin, she set the scene and explained some of the thinking behind recent decisions to collaborate with the Liberals over an unpopular budget rather than force an election. Effective leadership is not about making the easy choice (which in this case would have been to simply follow the lead set by the third leg and oppose the budget). Rather, negotiating a resolution required a far more thoughtful approach.
She went on to express her ideas and address the questions of the audience in a confident and engaging style. What follows are some key leadership lessons I was able to observe in action.
Acknowledge your critics
One of the most disarming things Ms Horwath did for the audience this morning was to acknowledge where many of them may be holding different views and perspectives on the best form of government. Not only was this a very humble way to approach the potentially antagonistic crowd, but it was extremely charming and immediately reset the tone of the discussion to more open exploration of ideas.
Anticipate questions and answer candidly
As you might expect, Ms Horwath was well prepared to address the kinds of questions that would arise. While her position for each area was clearly prepared in advance, her answers appeared to come very naturally and unscripted. The ability to be clear on your position frees you up to be authentic in your response.
Be clear on your role, and your priorities
Like any good leader, there was no doubt in Ms Horwath’s mind what she was there to do this morning. When an opportunity arose, she reinforced her approach and the value proposition offered by her party. But she did so while paying close attention to the needs and interests of the audience. She didn’t dominate the discussion with political mantra but she did adhere to her priorities to shine a positive light on the choices being made and the strong alternative offered by her approach.
Ask for what you want
While much of the discussion this morning was about supporting others and working within the boundaries and limitations set, I heard Ms Horwath explicitly ask the audience for their vote – twice! She made it clear that she will continue to work with the current structure for as long as required, but would much prefer to lead from the front. Her willingness to ask outright for what she wants, and to not obscure her ambition, impressed the heck out of me. Too many women are hesitant to state their ambitions and far too shy about asking for what they want.
Demonstrate your openness to fresh ideas
As a leader – there are always moments when you have to confront statements of opinion presented as a question, or unsolicited ideas on how to do a better job. Not only did Ms Horwath welcome such moments, she was incredibly gracious with her response and actively demonstrated that she would take action on the ideas presented.
Be true to who you are
One final observation I would make is that Ms Horwath is an example of a strong, confident and emotionally intelligent woman doing an excellent job in leadership. While her gender does not appear to have been a limitation in her advancement, she has a integrative style and subtle approach which I can’t imagine being delivered effectively by anyone other than a woman.