Measuring success through transformative leadership

Former tech executive urges students to
take values-based approach to business.

By Mike Strathdee

Christians in business must realize that achieving success is only the first of two important journeys in life, says the former chief operating officer of the company that created the smart phone.
Life’s first journey is building a career and becoming a growth junkie, committed to life-long learning, Don Morrison said in a speech to students at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, ON.


Morrison was chief operating officer for Research in Motion/Blackberry from 2000 to 2012. During his tenure, both Forbes and Fortune magazine named the Waterloo-based firm the fastest growing company in the world, for four consecutive years.
“Just realize that, as a Christian, there’s a second journey,’’ he said.
“The second journey is a paradox to the first journey. The second journey is this concept, of metanoia (spiritual conversion), where you learn to commit yourself to losing.” Don Morrison photo by Mike Strathdee Don Morrison photo by Mike Strathdee
Morrison, who is deeply interested in spirituality, chairs the Dalai Lama Centre for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
‘’You have to learn how to live inside that paradox, (because Jesus) Christ didn’t drive around in a Mercedes.”
Realizing that stuff is not the end game is an important perspective, he said.
Morrison’s career journey was both rocky and unexpected, with several “monumental failures” prior to finding success. He attended summer school, involuntarily, three times during high school to improve his grades.
Raised Catholic, his first career goal was to become a priest. That changed when he was 17 and met his future wife.
Next, he wanted to become a lawyer to make a lot of money. After attempting the law school entrance exam and ending up in the 12th percentile in one category, he reconsidered.
He got a job at a bank but realized he didn’t have a disposition for finance. He applied to every teachers’ college in southern Ontario and was turned down.
In the late 1970s, he became an entry level salesman at Bell. He was promoted to management a year later, then became the youngest national account manager in the organization by the end of his second year.
Not longer after that, the boss who had mentored him was transferred, replaced by someone who wasn’t supportive.
“There’s no such thing as a career where you get a straight shot. What’s going to happen is it’s going to run like an amplitudinal wave, where you’re going to have moments where you are peaking, and everything’s great, then you are going to have these declining moments, even some troughing moments. I will tell you that it’s the troughing moments where all the learning is, coming to grips with who you are.”
Morrison had a troughing moment in 1980. Recognizing the value of a business degree, he took Master of Business Administration studies. Near the end of that degree, Bell cancelled his leave of absence, leaving him without a job.
Ending up at AT&T, he rose to become president of consumer and small business for AT&T Canada but was later fired. He wasn’t out of work long. The same day, he sent his acceptance papers to RIM to join that firm.
“You just never really know until life presents itself to you.”
He thinks understanding the value of transformative rather than transactional leadership is a crucial business issue.
Transactional leaders embrace economist Milton Friedman’s philosophy that the sole purpose of business is to pursue top-line growth and bottom line performance for the benefit of shareholders. That mindset has driven business for hundreds of years.
“The art of the deal, the idea is that I win, you lose. It’s the arrogance of competitive advantage.”
Morrison recalls Blackberry sponsoring We Day events — an educational event promoted by the WE charity to celebrate young people making a difference — in Kitchener-Waterloo, so employees would have something to give to their kids. Parents volunteered, many of their children and others from schools across the region attended, hearing speakers that included the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former US vice-president Al Gore.
After the event, a board member told him that Apple (Blackberry’s chief competitor at the time) doesn’t sponsor those sorts of events, that the event wouldn’t contribute to a single additional smart phone being sold. Morrison replied that he had different criteria.
“The world is full of transactional leaders. That’s how we got here (to an unsustainable situation),” he said.
Transformative leadership, on the other hand, is selfless, values-based, taking a balanced view. “I win, and you win.”
What Morrison calls his gut check is based on two commandments from the New Testament of the Bible, loving God and loving others as you love yourself.
Transformation requires having a discipline in your life, he said. “I always ask myself the question, who do you serve?”
He urged his audience to be internally focused rather than externally dependent.
Being created in the image and likeness of God should influence how a person approaches life, he said.
Externally dependent people define themselves by what others say about them. People rooted in faith can cultivate a self-image that supersedes anything anyone says about them, positive or negative. “The biggest test of this will be times when things don’t necessarily go your way.”
“You are not the sum of what you own, or where you live, nor are you really your thoughts, your fears or the stories that you tell yourself.”
Morrison claims the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a noted theologian, writer and social activist, had more impact on his life than anyone other than his parents.
“The extent to which you can, in your spiritual discipline, allow this (love of God) to permeate you, this becomes your defining person, that you are blessed, and you are full of grace, there are no words for this.”
Poetry, art and  music-making reflect the highest nature of what it means to be human, he said.
“I think if there were enough of us that were cultivating this, and we had disciplines in our lives, to cultivate this beauty in ourselves, this great capacity for unity, this consciousness of compassion and humility, I think it would have a transformative effect on the world.”
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, first proposed in a psychology journal in 1943, is well known for laying out the basics people need for survival, security and self-actualization. What is less understood, Morrison noted, is that before he died, Maslow tacked a new item on the top of the pyramid – he called it self-transcendence – understanding that a person is not at the centre. “See that your thoughts are not who you are, but you really are (in the words of Thomas Merton) this beautiful person, made in the image and likeness of God.”
If a person can cultivate a sense of the divine, what the Bible calls the nine fruits of the spirit (in the New Testament book of Galatians, chapter 5, verses 22-23) “you’ll have a fulfilled life.”
Selfless personality predicated on compassion and genuine, authentic humility is the only way we are going to survive, he said.
“My gentle suggestion is, you can have that approach to doing business, or whatever career you choose, and you can still be a winner. And if you do, then we are all winners.” ◆