Leading with Integrity
Speech to the Women in Leadership conference
Wendy A. Tadros

Transportation Safety Board of Canada
Ottawa, Ontario
27 May 2010

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Good afternoon.

Thank you for that kind introduction.

So. A conference on leadership. There's a field that's never been covered before.

Put it this way: in preparing these remarks, I had a choice to make: I could try to compete with The Seven Highly Successful People who have Habits like � Moving my Cheese in One Minute � and Breaking all the Rules, for Winning Friends and Influencing � Oprah.

Or I could go my own direction, and make this more personal. Because you've all heard all the management jargon you need to hear, for a lifetime.

The late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone once said, "Never separate the life you live from the words you speak." That is what I want to talk to you about today.

I like that quote, partly because I speak a lot of words in my job, so it gives me plenty of opportunity to practice.

My organization produces a lot, too.

At the TSB we're an independent body with a simple mandate: investigate accidents and improve transportation safety.

Whenever a plane crashes, a boat sinks, a train derails or a pipeline leaks � When the phone rings in the middle of the night � when that alert comes in, our investigators go out, deploying all over the country at a moment's notice.

Their goal is to find out what happened, what went wrong, and how we can stop it from happening again.

If we do our job well, and for twenty years we always have, we go home at the end of the day having solved a problem, and hopefully saved lives.

But we don't stop there. Once our reports go out the door, we have to convince lawmakers, industry, and the Canadian public that the problem requires action.

But how?

Sure, it'd be nice if we could just say the words. But just saying things rarely gets things done. So we lead. Which means a number of things.

First, we hire the best. TSB people are qualified, dedicated, and come from a variety of professional backgrounds: airline pilots, rail and pipeline experts, computer technicians, journalists, lawyers, engineers, fishermen, and members of the Canadian forces-to name just a few.

And then we put them under pressure.

Actually, "pressure" doesn't really describe it. Sometimes it's more like a media storm. Or a hurricane.

Imagine what our investigators go through: A plane's crashed, you've just arrived from halfway across the country, and now you have a dozen microphones shoved in your face and reporters insisting you tell them what caused the accident, right this second.


Leading also means being credible. That means setting, then meeting, our own high standards. To do that, we have to be thorough, and we have to be steadfast. A lot of people are interested in our investigations: the companies that build and operate the planes, trains, ships and pipelines; the governments that regulate them; and families that have lost loved ones. And every single one of them wants our report to place them, their business, their products, or those they love in a positive light.

But safety investigation is detailed and analytical. It needs to be objective. Which means not only do we have to resist the pulls and tugs of special interests, we often have to tell them things they really don't want to hear.

The way I see it, though, we don't have a choice. People have come to trust us-the Canadian public trusts us-exactly because we don't play favourites. We say what we mean, we mean what we say, we don't cut corners, and we take the time necessary to make sure we've got the right answers.

They also trust us because we're willing to listen. You disagree with our interpretation, our conclusions? Go ahead, call us on it. If our report is going to comment on your product or behavior, we want your opinion. In fact, well before any report is finalized, we actively seek feedback from those involved.

Then, we open ourselves to even further scrutiny by making our reports public. Not just our reports, either: our recommendations, our press conferences-this speech, even-it's all on the Web, available to Canadians.

So that's us: a small, independent organization, handling roughly 4000 occurrences each year. A little over two hundred people, all of them committed to our core values: competence, openness, fairness, integrity, and respect-and committed to making us a leader in advancing transportation safety.

But how do you get two hundred people moving in the same direction, let alone a bunch of independent, strong minded experts? How do you even get them on the same page?

Ever get cornered at a party or an event and someone asks you to explain what you do for a living-and they expect it in 10 words or less? "He makes widgets. She sells knick-knacks and doo-dads."

Telling people that you "investigate transportation accidents and analyze data in an attempt to identify causes and contributing factors" sounds pretty technical. And telling them you sat in front of a House of Commons committee last week, being grilled by MPs, doesn't light many fires, either. It will just get them thinking, "Thank God it wasn't me!"

But here's the thing: The answer to that "how do you get people on the same page" question is easy, and it comes from the very act that created the TSB, which charges me and everyone in our organization with a duty to make life better.

You want people to work hard, work fast, and work together? Inspire them. Tell them that what they do matters. And make sure they see proof of that, every single day.

So when someone asks me that question, I say, "I work for the TSB. We save lives." And that's only three words.

Leadership, however, is about more than just inspiring people, no matter how noble the cause. Plenty of today's best-selling books say it's about vision, and the direction you're headed in. We're also told it's about being determined, or knowing which method to use to motivate which person. Those are true, too. But before you can know where to go, and before you can tell someone else where to go � Before any of that, there's something even more basic.

You have to know who. you. are.

"Who you are" defines everything else: where you want to go, how you deal with colleagues, bosses, employees, investors.

And to me, integrity is the base on which everything else is built. It's the foundation. With it, you can lead two hundred people, or two hundred thousand. Without it, you can't even lead yourself.

A friend of mine is a real outdoors type. He's always taking people out for group hikes, and he loves to explore new trails. He always carries a map and a compass, and what's more he checks them, frequently. I asked him about it once, curious-because how many men do you know who actually admit to asking for directions?-but his answer was simple: "Ego's got nothing to do with it," he said. "Getting people lost in the wilderness is highly overrated."

Look: every day we have to make choices. And very seldom do we have the luxury of choosing between absolutes. Black or white? More like dark grey and light grey-if we're lucky. This becomes even harder because corporate culture-which was already stressful and demanding enough-tends to prize one thing above all others: speed.

Which means a lot of choices, and a lot of decisions, have to be made in a hurry.

And it's those decisions that you make in a flash-the ones where there's no time to think, where you have to rely on your gut instinct-that often define us.

It's tough, though. Plenty of times, there will be people who won't agree with you.

They'll second guess every decision you make, trot out experts and advisors who can show you five ways to Sunday that you're wrong-even when your own experts show you six that you're right.

But that's what leadership is.

Because experts, advisors, and best-selling management books can only take you so far. And even if you have access to every expert under the sun, the only gut you have access to -the only compass in case you're missing the analogy-is your own.

So yes, sometimes leadership is about making the big speech: waving your arms and herding everybody in the direction you want them to go. And yes, it's also about motivating people. Encouraging them, praising them, sometimes even calling the dreaded closed door meeting and making it very clear that Behaviour. Needs. To. Change.

But a lot of the time it's about being yourself. About knowing which direction your compass points, so that you can say with confidence "We're not going that way, we're going here. Even if it's harder. Even if it's slower, or more expensive. Even if you're the only one who sees it."

Even then, we sometimes make mistakes.

I said earlier that at the TSB we receive 4000 reports of transportation accidents every year. That's a lot to handle for such a small organization, and I'll be honest, there's no way we can launch a full investigation for every single one. It's just not possible. So 4000 times a year we assess the situation, look at the factors in play, see what resources we have available and then make a judgment call-a decision based on two guiding principles:

  • is there something new to be learned here?
  • and, will it advance transportation safety for all Canadians?

Do we get it right every time? We receive four thousand reports a year! Anybody who tells you they have the perfect system doesn't deserve to speak at a leadership conference-at least not one about leading in the real world.

So no, we don't get it right every time. And even when we do, I still get heartbreaking letters from bereaved family members who can't sleep at night because they want to know why their husband or wife isn't coming back, and why we're not investigating.

That's probably one of the worst parts of my job.

The alternative, however, is bleaker. No map at all? No compass? You'd be on the wrong course, lost in some very dangerous woods. And not just lost, but lost with a whole bunch of people relying on you.

So I guess I'm not telling you so much about "how to have integrity," as I'm reminding you "to use your integrity so you won't get in as much trouble."

Paul Wellstone, the late senator I quoted in my introduction, died in a plane crash in 2002. We didn't investigate that one but, by all accounts, the life he spoke about was the one he lived. I doubt he was a saint-too few of us are-and while I never met him, I'm inspired by something else he once said:

"If we don't fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don't really stand for them."

Look: I can't tell you how to run your business better. Nor can I tell you how to be a better person, or the perfect manager. Like I said earlier, this isn't the speech where I give you all the answers. Besides, I'm a lawyer by training, not � Oprah. But I can tell you that if you lead with integrity, if every day you fight to be true to the principles that you stand for �

� if you do all that �well, you'll still face tough choices at work. And at the end of the day there will still be those who question your decisions.

But you'll be a leader, and more than likely a good one. One who is recognized and respected. One who knows who she is. Or who he is.

And if you're ever out in the woods, you'll be the kind who more than likely carries a map. And checks it, frequently.

Which means you can go hiking with me anytime.