Painting the Chimney

(A speech given during the Keyano College Leadership in Action program launch on February 2, 2011)

There is a line that goes through my head when I think of leadership that my dad used to say when I was a kid. I’m sure he said it many times, but the image that comes to me is of our neighbor’s chimney. From top to bottom it was probably 35 feet. My task, in what I think was the summer of 1982 or 83, was to paint the flat surfaces of the bricks barn red and then paint the grout shocking white. It was a daunting and perilously laborious assignment.

And as I take myself back to that moment, standing on the ground and looking way up, contemplating the monotony and effort that lay ahead for me that summer, one sentence repeated itself in my mind over and over again.


I’m not sure if you’d find this line in a leadership book, or in this Leadership in Action course. But as a leader it has served me incredibly well and hums its sentiment to me even now, when I am faced with a difficult CHALLENGE, a new PROJECT, or an out-of-this-world IDEA.


I talk to my sons about this notion. They are only 7 and 11, but they will soon be thinking about earning their own money and getting part-time jobs. And whether they’re earning $5 an hour babysitting or a pittance more slinging French fries at McDonalds, if they approach everything they do with the right intention, with complete effort, they will develop a great potential for leadership.


I think of my years as a donut baker working for Robin’s Donuts and then Tim Hortons, when I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. (I’ll bet you didn’t know that about me!)
Still, I set out to be the best damn donut baker there was, and when my shift was done, that kitchen was cleaner than I found it. It was some of the most satisfying work of my life.

I was paid about $45 a day for 8 to 12 hours of work. I got paid the same no matter how long the shift was. You do the math. It really wasn’t about the money.

I went from there to a room service gig at the Holiday Inn in Saskatoon and then finally, found myself tagging along with a friend who was applying for broadcasting school. I decided to join him on a whim and it changed the direction of my life immediately.

Eventually, I got my first, second and third radio jobs, and finally was hired by the OK Radio Group to come up to Fort McMurray to program CJOK (now Country 93.3) and eventually KYX 98 (now ROCK 97.9). Within a couple of weeks of landing, while still living out of a hotel room, I joined the Fort McMurray interPLAY Society and began a leadership adventure that ended up stretching 15 incredible years.

When the interPLAY Festival was a child of what it is today, I would find myself as President of the organization, putting up heavy tents, climbing up scaffolding and hanging signs, and picking garbage off the street till the wee hours of the morning to make sure that we left things cleaner than we found them. Even now, I love nothing more than arriving at interPLAY early in the morning and picking up garbage or straightening up chairs to get ready for the busy day ahead.


I’ll always have a deep gratitude to my dad for giving me this.

The other thing about my leadership journey has been the reality and the blessing that I’ve been a dismal failure, many times over.

A good friend of mine and a former boss named Wray Betts taught me the incredible power of reframing failure, set-backs, good decisions gone bad. Today, Wray runs a series of radio stations in the Westlock area for NewCap, but back then he was a fledgling general manager of Q14 Radio in Stettler in Central Alberta.

He managed the business of the station while I ran the programming. It was my first official “paid” leadership gig. It was far from easy and provided many ripe opportunities for failure. But these challenges became opportunities, setbacks became learning moments, and eventually struggle became success.
Looking back on years of being in a leadership position, I can recall many periods of trials and tribulations: of hiring seemingly perfect employees who eventually made our lives miserable, of coming up with that BIG IDEA that fell flat on its face, and of putting my foot in my mouth more times than I’d care to admit.

Two platitudes come to mind with respect to the role that the tough times play in leadership. The first is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” He wrote that in 1963.

About 45 years later I started saying something slightly different:

“The seeds of my success are sown in soil rich with failure.”

I honestly don’t know if I came up with this? There are variants when you Google it, but I’ll lay claim to it just for fun.

“The seeds of my success are sown in soil rich with failure.”

As leaders, we are faced with myriad situations and a multitude of options. And whether we make the right or the wrong decision, there is always an opportunity to learn and become better.
So, I guess my message today is to give every task, every project, every job your complete and 100% effort, and instead of fearing or avoiding failure, be prepared to embrace it and learn from it.

The success of Keyano College’s Leadership in Action course is predicated on the notion that its participants have a desire and an aptitude to lead. It is going to provide a set of tools and an experience that will enhance and enable the leadership journey for everyone who participates.
It will help individuals, companies, our community and country, realize the incredible potential that exists when we give leaders a chance to emerge and develop.

Thank you.


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