Bruce Simpson is a director of McKinsey & Company and global co-leader of its operations practice. He advises aerospace, basic materials and healthcare clients on operations, performance transformation, cultural change and continuous improvement.
Simpson was recently invited to Upper Canada College to address the Upper School Founder’s Day assembly about character. Here’s what he had to say:
“Good morning, everybody, and congratulations on the birthday of Upper Canada College.
“Today we should all salute Sir John Colborne, the founder of UCC. He had character. He was courageous. He led a charge at the Battle of Waterloo. He was a builder, tirelessly trying to improve his community. He created the school to develop leaders like you.
“So I also want to salute you. I am sure every one of you is already making a huge difference to the school, to your families and to your communities. And I want to share a few things that might help you do more of that, building on some of the values that your founder had, and some of the lessons I learned when I was about your age and studied for my IB exam back in 1979.
“So what’s my story? Let me take you back to my IB year, 1979. It was hard to study. Pink Floyd had just come out with their great album The Wall, The Clash had just brought out London Calling and Led Zeppelin was in full swing. I saw them live at Knebworth. My son Adair, who is in Foundation Year and a huge 1970s music fan, thinks this is pretty cool.
“I had an incredible childhood. My parents were explorers. My mother is the first woman ever to have crossed the Greenland ice cap from one side to the other, a trip she did with my father in 1966.
“I spent much of my childhood in Greenland and the Canadian arctic living with the Eskimos, and exploring the extraordinary wilderness that is around us.
“I was a talented ski racer and moved to boarding school in Switzerland to train for the Olympics. I had a plan. I would race in the 1980 Olympics for my country and win its first-ever Olympic medal in Alpine skiing. Then I would take up my place at Cambridge University and become a successful human rights lawyer, bringing dictators to justice and changing the world. I was pretty sure of myself.
“When I left high school, I did join the national ski team, however they told me I wasn’t ready for the Olympics. They were going to take older racers who had more experience, despite the fact that they felt I had more potential. So when the Olympic team was marching into the stadium in Lake Placid with their shiny new Olympic blazers, I was alone at home, devastated, cynical and disillusioned. My plan did not include waiting for four more years till the next Olympics, and yet I had been training since I was a fetus to race for my country.
“Then my dad fell desperately ill. He burst his appendix and we were all summoned to the hospital to wish him our last words. I felt angry at him. How can you die now when you haven’t yet downloaded all of your wisdom and advice to me? It doesn’t fit my plan.
“Everything had fallen apart and I went from feeling on top of my world to rock bottom.
“So what did I do? I spent time with my father, who survived miraculously and was now stuck in hospital. I spent weeks by his hospital bed having those conversations I never had had time for before. I felt blessed.
“He helped me understand that I was still a worthy son despite not making the Olympics for the family. I still had the same strengths. I just needed to find a different way to use them.
“’Seek a different podium,’ he said, and he reminded me my family loved me and would always be right behind me.
“I also found some heroes and read about a Scottish runner called Eric Liddel. The film Chariots of Fire described his heroic life.
“A committed Christian and athlete headed for glory in the 1924 Olympics, he refused to compete as his qualifying race took place on a Sunday — for him, a day of rest. He stood up to his country, his king and the Olympic committee, refusing to deny his beliefs. Instead, he ran in a new event, the 400 metres. He won a gold medal and the hearts of his nation.
“Soon afterwards, Liddel left the fame aside and went to China, living out his life as a missionary, serving others in poverty and obscurity.
“After Cambridge, I decided to follow Liddel’s path to China, looking to find my own. China was a closed country in the early ‘80s. You could only visit a few large cities by train and plane. It was illegal to go further afield. I asked for official permission. It was refused. Nevertheless, I set off with a friend to cross China on bicycles without guides, interpreters, good maps or money in an attempt to expose China’s countryside to the west. We set off nervously cycling into the night, looking over our shoulders for police, worried that at any moment we would be stopped and thrown in jail. We spent three-and-a-half months and 5,000 kilometres of incredible adventures in western China, cycling across parts of the country no westerner had ever seen.
“We crossed landslides and high passes, never knowing where we were. And actually, we were welcomed with open arms by the Chinese everywhere. We finished our trip in Canton with Chinese lining the streets cheering as we cycled by and Chinese policemen with flags cycling in front of us. It was extraordinary.
“And when I got back to the U.K., I didn’t get an Olympic medal. However, I did get a Churchill Medallion from the queen for helping open up connections between the youth of China and the Western world.
“Through that adventure, the inspiration from some key heroes and from my father, I fundamentally shifted my own philosophy about life and why I am here on the planet.
Rather than wanting to be the best in the world and on top of that Olympic podium for a moment, I would try to be the best for the world every day.
“I committed to two things:
“1. I would live a life of radical generosity, helping others in the same way that the Chinese had helped me through our adventures in China, sharing their food, their homes and their friendship despite having so little themselves.
“2. I would also try to change my leadership and achievement goals; to seek impact rather than the limelight.
“Today we will each probably interact with over 100 people in getting where we are going: classmates, teachers, beggars on the street. When we are so tied up in gettingthere, what we often don’t see are the myriad ways we can show leadership in any given moment along that road. Imagine those interactions being different and more caring. Imagine that new energy being a catalyst that impacts others in ways you can’t even see?
“So let’s fast forward to today.
“I’m now a management consultant. I help companies improve performance, grow, open up new markets, find new opportunities and change their cultures. I love what I do. I’m on several non-profit boards, so feel engaged in the community, still trying to live a life of radical generosity. I still ski race and aspire to be World Masters champion some day.
“I have an amazing wife and three worthy, inspiring sons. Every summer since they were infants, we’ve embarked unassisted on expeditions somewhere remote to reconnect and explore.
“Now, as you work hard and create adventures ahead, let me make a couple of suggestions:
“1. Know your strengths and use them with confidence.
“We all have strengths. They will always be a constant in your life. Know what they are and build on them. They make you unique and help build confidence to get through your challenges. Don’t be afraid to let them shine.
“2. Find your heroes and appreciate your families.
“They are your compass. And yes, even brothers and sisters with whom you fight love you.
“3. Character and resilience are more important than brilliance.
“U.S. Second World War General Patton said: ‘Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom.’
“You won’t always be in a supportive environment, so don’t expect an easy ride. How you react when things go wrong is the greatest test of your mettle. But remember, the strongest steel was born in the hottest fires.
“It is just another step in your journey, so embrace it. When things get a little tough for you, think of Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison. Did he emerge cynical and warped? No. He came out with a great vision and a heart full of passion for peace. He bounced back and transformed a country. He showed resilience. He showed character. Character is the muscle that grows when you choose to follow your conscience.
“But your conscience does not live in your head. It lives in your heart, so listen.
“How many choices do you make with your head every day? But your head often chooses out of fear. Some fear is good. Fear keeps us safe. But other fears stifle us. Fear of the unknown. Fear of ridicule. Fear of failure. Fear of your own light, perhaps? Listen rather to your conscience. Ask ‘What you would do if you weren’t afraid?’ and go for it.
“Remember my favourite Canadian philosopher, Wayne Gretzky, who said: ‘You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t try.’
“Also remember that these are attributes you choose, muscles you develop with practice. You don’t choose what life throws at you. You do choose how you react to that. You can choose the path of character and resilience.
“Steve Dubrick is leading UCC’s efforts to build character into your UCC experience. This is a fantastic initiative. Listen to what he has to say. He has amazing wisdom on the topic. So does Dr. Power, whose blog is an ongoing inspiration to me.
“True leadership is in the small things. You will all do great deeds. But remember, in the great things, people often behave how they want to be perceived. In the small things, they behave the way they are. Humanity, compassion, forgiveness and charity to the people your life brings to you every day creates a ripple effect of goodness more powerful than any single great deed. Don’t miss those moments. Ralph Waldo Emerson said you cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.
“So perhaps some of you are going through a challenging time. Can you turn those upsets to set-ups?
“Or maybe you are on top of the world and it is time to give back and show gratitude to others.
“Or perhaps you are pedalling along and can pick up the intensity because every day counts.
“All the best with your futures. I’m sure they will be great.