Canada doesn’t need to be an economic superpower to lead the world

Canada’s place in the world has been in the news lately, for a variety of reasons.

For starters, Canadian jets have been hitting Islamic State military positions in Iraq. For American readers, who are more used to seeing their military show its muscle, I should clarify: this is newsworthy in Canada. Canadians have historically thought of themselves as peacekeepers — we have a long history of participation in UN peacekeeping missions — but have less often, in recent decades at least, been involved in outright warfare.

And on the economic front, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is just back from visiting China, a trip aimed at solidifying and expanding economic relations between the two countries. Not surprisingly, given the focus of the visit, a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office makes no mention of human rights. But as others have noted repeatedly, China has a pretty bad record in that regard. A liberal democracy like Canada must be concerned (and has occasionally expressed concern) about China’s record on human rights. So the trip to China meant the PM had to smile for the cameras while presumably biting his tongue. It’s not hard to understand that decision: the trip reportedly resulted in $2.8 billion worth of new deals — a big amount for a relatively small economy like Canada’s. The deal is less important for China’s massive economy, naturally. But it is no doubt important for China’s leadership to be seen shaking hands with leaders of respected liberal democracies. As political scientist Charles Burton put it, “the Chinese leadership got the affirmation of political legitimacy that they wanted from Canada.” Is Canada hoping to demonstrate leadership here, helping its new best pal see the way forward on human rights? Or is Canada instead being led by the nose?

But Canada faces other challenges too on the global scene. Canada’s dairy farmers, long protected by a system of quotas and price controls, are currently haunted by the spectre of international competition. In an era of free (or freer) trade, such protections are increasingly coming under fire. Most recently, New Zealand (charmingly referred to by some as the ‘Saudi Arabia of milk’) is pushing to gain access for its milk producers to the Canadian market. Is Canada going to lead in free trade, or in protectionism?

All of this is to say that the role of Canada on the world stage — the military stage, the political stage, and the economic stage — is evolving rapidly. High on the list of related questions is whether there is a leadership role for Canada, and if so, just what that role is. Canadians know that they aren’t going to play a leadership role militarily. We aren’t a superpower (we rank 57th, globally, in terms of active military personnel, and our defence budget is the 15th biggest in the world). And in terms of overall population, our 35 million puts us at 38th in the world, and our GDP is the 11th highest in the world — respectable for our size, but hardly an economic superpower.

But the truth of it is — and this is a point I work hard to impress upon my students — that leadership isn’t a function reserved for the top of the food-chain. In a corporation, leadership isn’t exclusively a function for CEOs and other C-suite executives. Leadership happens throughout an organization. And I don’t just mean that there are managers at all levels. That’s true, but not the point: not all managers are leaders in any meaningful sense. Leadership is a role, not a job title, and you (yes you!) can be a leader if you have the skills and use them to step up to the plate. So Canada (and other non-superpower countries) can still aim to play a leadership role on the international stage, if they are willing and interested to.

That’s why the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre (of which I am Director) is proud to be supporting The Economist‘s first-ever Canada Summit. (You can get a $400 discount on registration by clicking on that link!) The overarching theme is the question, “how can Canada play a larger, global role?” The Canada Summit is characteristically ambitious (I’ve participated in one of The Economist’s events previously), but the organizers have gathered together an impressive lineup of speaker to tackle the Summit’s agenda. Of course, no one event can really answer such ambitious questions. But the conversation is important. Personally or nationally, the question of whether this is your time to lead is always an open one. But the right time to start thinking about it is always now.

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