Recognizing Jane Philpott’s Ongoing Contribution to Canada

Image of Jane Phipott's Ongoing Contribution to Canada

The Honourable Perrin Beatty, head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, was recently in Ottawa to give the Ivey Business School’s annual Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership at the National Gallery. The address was entitled “Canada Adrift in a World without Leaders.” But as Beatty noted, the title was somewhat misleading because there is no shortage of leaders either in Canada or on the global stage. “The issue,” he added, “is whether the quality of leadership we see is up to the existential challenges that confront humanity.”

Beatty pointed out that Canada faces a long list of critical issues—regardless of whether our leaders deal seriously with them or not—with the short version including climate change, declining economic competitiveness, an aging population, inadequate infrastructure, and the need to build a 21st-century workforce, not to mention what role we want to play—in diplomacy, security, and business—in the global community.

Addressing these issues, of course, is a challenge in itself because doing so requires leaders who have the courage and principles required to get the job done—leaders like former Liberal cabinet minister Jane Philpott.

When Philpott, who also earned the “Honourable” title (in more ways than one), gave up her distinguished medical career to enter politics, she wanted to make a difference. As she told voters, “A seat in the House of Commons is not a target, it’s a tool. It’s the tool that you and I will use to make this community better—to make this country better.” As a cabinet minister, she was in a position to use that tool with surgical precision. And if the recent federal election had gone differently, she might have been in Beatty’s audience as a returning member of parliament.

But Philpott resigned from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet to protest his unethical handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, which resulted in her ejection from the Liberal caucus. And then she lost her seat while running as independent in the Ontario riding of Markham-Stouffville, coming in third, behind both the Conservative candidate and the victorious Liberal Helena Jaczek.

Canadian politics has served up plenty of disappointing things over the years. But the fact that Philpott lost her re-election bid as an independent (while the two central figures in the SNC-Lavalin scandal—Trudeau and Jody Wilson-Raybould—were re-elected) is perhaps the most disappointing in recent memory.

“Simply put, Philpott is no longer serving Canadians as an elected official because she chose personal integrity over job security.”

As Brian Bird, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University, noted in the Ottawa Citizen, “Philpott had no apparent skin in the game when it came to SNC-Lavalin. For her, it boiled down to a matter of conscience—a question of right and wrong. Her actions evoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who said there ‘comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.’”

Simply put, Philpott is no longer serving Canadians as an elected official because she chose personal integrity over job security. This wasn’t an easy decision. As she explained when resigning from her last cabinet post as President of the Treasury Board, “It grieves me to resign from a portfolio where I was at work to deliver an important mandate. I must abide by my core values, my ethical responsibilities, constitutional obligations. There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.”

Today, the SNC-Lavalin affair has retreated from the headlines. But nobody should see Philpott’s resignation as a waste.

Principles are the only thing standing between leaders and betraying the stakeholders they serve. And compromising them just once, even by simply overlooking the unethical behaviour of others, opens the door to greater transgressions. That’s why Philpott chose to abide by her core values and resign, rather than keep her position and support a government that she felt put the rule of law at risk.

Recognizing this decision as more than a teachable moment, we made it an Ivey case study—with her cooperation—to help educate future leaders on what it takes to be authentic for years to come.

When interviewed by Ivey Professor Gerard Seijts (see below), Philpott noted that she had no clearly defined expectation about what would happen following her resignation. But she hoped it served as a wake-up call, noting: “The people I hear from most often are young people, particularly young women. They talk about how my resignation has modelled courage for them and that they have drawn strength from my actions. Ultimately, we won’t know for years to come what has been achieved by essentially shaking up the political party system, making it clear that not everybody is going to be prepared to fall in line for the benefit of the party or for the benefit of corporate beneficiaries. I hope my actions will have had some influence in changing the culture of politics.”

We also hope Philpott’s actions will inspire courage in others, but we don’t think years need to pass to see whether her resignation has had a positive impact. After all, before she resigned, the world desperately needed an indisputable example of the kind of quality leadership needed—in politics and business—to meet the challenges identified in Beatty’s speech.

Philpott’s principled stand gave us one. And for that, she deserves Canada’s gratitude.

Interview with The Honourable Jane Philpott

Ivey professor Gerard Seijts: You have a strong set of values. Can you share with us some of the core values that you relied on in your decision-making about the SNC-Lavalin affair, from talking to Prime Minister Trudeau and articulating your deep concerns regarding the SNC-Lavalin file to eventually tendering your resignation letter?

Dr. Jane Philpott: It’s difficult to pick out individual values that lead to a decision like that, but I think some of the values foremost in my mind would have been honesty, integrity, and authenticity—holding true to oneself. I think the paradoxical values of courage and vulnerability are worth mentioning. It takes courage to make a decision like that, but, as many have pointed out, you can’t have courage without vulnerability, realizing that you take risks when you act with courage. I think service—service to country—was another value that influenced my decision-making. I also thought about reliability: how could I essentially stay true to who I presented myself to be as a candidate for member of Parliament and follow through on the commitments I made?

GS: Where did these values come from: your parents and your upbringing?

JP: Absolutely. I would say very much so. There was my parents’ intentional teaching and, probably more important, there was my parents’ modelling of values in their actions and lives. That would be how I internalized those values.

GS: What do you see as the cost of abandoning one’s own principles and values?

JP: This is a hard question because what would be lost is a bit difficult to describe. Essentially, it would be the loss of personal integrity. You could describe it as selling your soul. To be unable to speak the truth and unable to stand up for what you believe is right was, to me, completely untenable. I would not be able to exist in a context where I had abandoned those values.

GS: What would be your message to students about having a clear set of values?

JP: I think establishing a set of values starts with knowing yourself well enough to know what you stand for, what your core principles are. Second, be prepared to draw the line. I think you should go into business or politics or any other career knowing that there will be occasions when those around you will try to cross a line that conflicts with your sense of what is right and wrong. You need to be prepared for that. Third, realize that there may be a cost involved in adhering to your values. You may have to give up money, prestige, or opportunity if the only other option is crossing an ethical line. You need to know yourself well enough to consider what you would choose if faced with that situation. Ask yourself, “Are money and prestige more important to me than retaining my integrity?” People need to decide that for themselves, but you should think about it before you are confronted with the challenge.

GS: What did you expect your resignation from Cabinet would achieve, and have you been surprised at the outcome?

JP: I’m not sure that I had a clearly defined expectation when I resigned from cabinet. The situation had come to a point where resigning was the only option that would allow me to retain my integrity. Unless I resigned, I would have to lie, and I wasn’t prepared to do that.

In the end, I think my resignation has been a wake-up call for many people. It certainly has had a big impact, making the public more aware of the issues. The people I hear from most often are young people, particularly young women. They talk about how my resignation has modelled courage for them and that they have drawn strength from my actions. Ultimately, we won’t know for years to come what has been achieved by essentially shaking up the political party system, making it clear that not everybody is going to be prepared to fall in line for the benefit of the party or for the benefit of corporate beneficiaries. I hope my actions will have had some influence in changing the culture of politics.

GS: The economist Albert Hirschman wrote a seminal book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Hirschman believed that individuals can respond to situations that conflict with their values or expectations by resigning or leaving (the exit option) or by agitating and trying to bring about change (the voice option). Loyalty, the third factor, can stop an exit and keep the individual aligned with the organization and its leaders, but sustained loyalty requires an opportunity for voice to play its proper role. You took the exit option, but perhaps only after you found out that speaking up internally (the voice option) made no difference? Can you say a few words about each of these options and to what extent you considered them in your decision-making process?

JP: I did exit Cabinet because in this situation, I could not sustain my obligation to cabinet solidarity. But I did not choose to exit caucus [the group of Liberal members of Parliament]. I was booted out. So I chose to exit, but only in part. That was the choice I made, with significant consequences and personal sacrifice, including a sacrifice to opportunity. And, you are correct, I did not pursue that route without having first tried the voice option. I think voice can be helpful, but it depends on who you are voicing your concerns to. If your voice is not heard or there is no response, then you have to decide whether you will go further.

I was accused of being disloyal, a traitor, and more, which has been an interesting part of the conversation. People have thought I was disloyal because they confused to whom a politician should be loyal. In his book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, James Comey recalls a conversation he had with the president: Trump asked Comey about his highest loyalty, to which Comey replied that his loyalty is to country and to the truth. Some people accused me of being disloyal to the Liberal Party, misunderstanding that while I do have obligations to serve under the Liberal Party, I have a higher loyalty to the people of Canada and to my constituents. You have to put country before party, and to do so required the steps that I took.

GS: American writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner once said, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If [every one of you] will do this, … you will change the earth.” But speaking up, exercising your voice, is hard. Many employees and professionals who do speak up against unethical behaviour or flawed policies or processes risk their reputation, end up being ostracized, and even lose their jobs. What would be your message to students about exercising their voice when they encounter bad or counterproductive behaviour in the organizations they work for? Do you have a message for senior executives who typically are in a position to actually do something about the behaviour or ethical transgressions they observe?

JP: I would encourage students not to be afraid to do the right thing. They need to take a long view of their career trajectory to realize that what might seem like an act that will limit their options now or risk advancement may, in fact, be the very move that will benefit them later in their career. At every step of your career, you have to consider the choices between power, prestige, and profit and integrity, justice, and service. You always need to know which of those values you are going to align with. What may seem like a sacrifice at one point may actually lead to an unknown opportunity later.

For senior executives, something I learned from this experience is to listen to your staff and your people when they are trying to tell you something. Speak up clearly when you see mistakes. Michael McCain, the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, did that during the listeriosis crisis. What McCain did is similar to what I was taught to do during my medical training. It was that training that helped me prepare the advice that I gave to the Prime Minster.

In medical training, we are taught unequivocally that as soon as we know that a medical mistake has been made, to acknowledge the mistake directly with the person who has been potentially harmed by it, whether the person has actually been harmed or not. Even if the mistake amounts to a potential harm—for example, if you gave the wrong dose of a medication—you must acknowledge the error, apologize for it, and make a commitment to understand how it happened and put measures in place to prevent the error from happening again. That is a standard, effective recipe in medicine. We’ve learned that people are remarkably forgiving when you speak the truth, admit mistakes, and do what you can so that no one else will be put in harm’s way.

Politicians haven’t learned that model. Obviously, that was advice that I gave as soon as the story broke. I think we might be in a different place now if it had been followed.

GS: People second-guessed you, criticized you, and called you disloyal. How did you develop the resiliency to deal with the aftermath of your resignation?

JP: Part of resiliency is having perspective, being clear about how your position and experiences affect you. My whole life has been affected by the perspective of having experienced significant losses, including the loss of our daughter who died in Africa, and watching people suffer the worst imaginable tragedies and losses. I know that loss can be life and death, and that loss is far greater than getting a demotion at work.

You look at what is important. My family, my self-respect, and my personal reputation were, to me, always more important than political success. I didn’t enter politics to gain prestige or to reaffirm my self-worth. I did it to serve. The loss of my position was, to me, less important than all of those other things.

Finally, I strongly believe that history will be kind to us. Even with the disclosures contained in the report from Parliament’s Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. Truth has a way of coming out. I knew things that others didn’t know, and I always believed that the truth would rise to the surface and the actions that I took would be judged well in that light.

GS: You have a passion for education. If you were to teach this case, what would be the leadership lessons you would want students, young adults, or senior executives to take away from your experience in Cabinet during the SNC-Lavalin affair? What is a lasting lesson you would like to leave with those who will work through the case?

JP: I would offer insights from two perspectives. The lesson from my perspective is that you cannot be successful in politics or business without accepting some measure of vulnerability. You require a certain measure of vulnerability to be bold and make courageous decisions about the biggest challenges you will face. Having the vulnerability necessary to make those decisions ultimately enables success.

I think it might also be insightful to consider the lesson from the perspective of the Prime Minister. What I learned is that you need to listen to a lot of voices, and you need to listen to the people who are trying to help you, who are on your side but have constructive criticism about how you are managing a situation. If you have a small echo chamber of affirmation, you will risk making very big mistakes.

There are probably more lessons to gather from the Prime Minister’s perspective. I find it stunning, from any professional perspective, that he never gathered all the relevant people together in a room and said, “Hey, let’s sort this out. What happened? How can we go forward?”

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