Cardinal Thomas Collins Register file photo

Leadership based on character, Collins tells business leaders

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  • December 6, 2012

Strong leadership is founded on character but can be undermined by ego, Cardinal Thomas Collins told a room full of Toronto business leaders.

"Leadership, to be fruitful, must be based on character and not be defined by the outward signs that accompany it," Collins said. But he cautioned that "the great enemy is ego" and when leaders get drunk on ego "then all of us will suffer."

The cardinal was the guest speaker Dec. 5 at a breakfast series on leadership and character held at the National Club in Toronto. The series is presented by King Bay Chaplaincy, a non-denominational ministry that counsels executives in Toronto's financial district on stress-related issues that often lead to divorce, depression and addiction.

Collins drew a distinction between the outward signs of leadership, which he said can be important, and the true purpose of leadership, to serve the common good. He said symbols of leadership, such as the scarlet robes of a cardinal, a king's crown or an executive's corner office, are "vital in life" but "we are in deep trouble if we become enchanted by them."

"They are simply tools, often useful tools, to advance the deeper purpose," Collins said. "We are all in deep trouble when, as too often happens in this fallen world, people get addicted to the signs of authority but do not attend to the deeper requirement of a virtuous life, a life founded on the inner substance that is character."

True leadership is about guiding members of a community to advance the common good, he said. It requires selflessness, humility and a willingness to admit failure and learn from it.

"The danger is that the leader can become self absorbed," Collins said.

This applies equally to leaders in the Church, government and business.

"But the key is character — and that means overcoming the ego that positions of leadership can puff up," he said. "Although a healthy ego is good, and provides some of the drive necessary for effectiveness in life and in leadership, when leaders get drunk on ego, as can easily happen in any community, then all of us will suffer."

Collins described two forms of leadership: that of authority and influence. The authority of leaders, acting virtuously, is essential to enact and enforce decisions for the common good. But leadership by influence is equally important, he said. He cited the examples of Blessed Mother Teresa and Gandi as people who never wielded authority but were influential leaders.

"As authority provides the skeleton of a community, influence is its breath and blood," Collins said. "We need both. We are called to exercise leadership in society often more by influence than by authority — and often influence is more effective.

"Both forms of leadership depend on the character of the leader, and on the recognition by the community that the leader is a person of integrity who cares more for them and for the mission on which they are engaged, than on self. If that essential element is missing, both forms are ineffective."

Effective leadership, he said, means being a bridge builder who works to overcome divisions in a community for "only a community that is united can attain the purpose that gives it meaning."

Read the transcript of the speech

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