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Home > Articles > RMC Looking Back > Challenges of leadership a magnet for Scott Stevenson

Challenges of leadership a magnet for Scott Stevenson

Posted: August 20th, 2015 @ 2:36am


Scott Stevenson admits it’s not something that is universally applicable.

“You can’t equate rugby as a metaphor for all of life,” he said, “but I think it does work in a lot of leadership situations.”

Certainly Stevenson has seen parallels between his chosen sport and the work he has done throughout a career that has taken him from Royal Roads, through the infantry and intelligence branch of the Canadian Forces and to the upper levels of the federal civil service.

Stevenson spoke on the topic not long ago, when he was asked to address the members of the varsity rugby team at Royal Military College at a year-end banquet.

“I spoke about leadership that they learn on the field,” Stevenson said, “and how leading your peers is one of the most challenging contexts in which to exercise leadership.

“Part of the thing about working together on the rugby field is (how), in a very dynamic and chaotic situation, when the play is broken, what the situation calls for is for somebody to step forward and pick up the ball and decide what they’re going to do with it—to take it and move it forward, or to take it into contact, or take it and try to find space.

“Those are good analogies for what can be involved in working with a small group of people in a complex and dynamic situation. If things are chaotic, somebody needs to decide, and then start to move in a way that other people can see them and follow.”

The challenges of leadership have lured Stevenson since he was a teen, growing up in Richmond Hill, Ont., then a town of 30,000 that is now an environ of Toronto inhabited by about 250,000 souls. Four boys from Richmond Hill High School chose military college, quite a high percentage of a graduating class from a school of 800 students.

Three of them could trace that affinity to the local air cadets unit, 778 Squadron.

“From the time I was in cadets, I was quite drawn to the opportunities to exercise leadership,” Stevenson said. “Cadets was a great way to do that. I was more interested in the leadership aspects of the cadet experience than I was, say, in getting my pilot’s licence. I didn’t do any of the pilot camps; I just did the leadership camps.”

Stevenson was introduced to rugby in his Grade 9 year. His father, a phys-ed teacher, was involved in a Commonwealth teacher exchange and the family lived for a year in Cheltenham, England. When he got back to Canada, there was no rugby in the high school so he played soccer.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a gifted athlete,” Stevenson said. “I didn’t play rep hockey, I played house-league hockey, but the thing in rugby is, it’s a sport where there is room for different sizes and shapes of players. Your level of effort and commitment is going to be rewarded, in terms of how you support the other players. You don’t necessarily have to be a playmaker to make a big contribution to a rugby team.”

While in England, Stevenson’s interest in the infantry was kindled. He joined the Boy Scouts and the scout troop spent a week during the March break that year with the local unit, the Gloucestershire Regiment, which was based in Germany.

“As a 14-year-old Boy Scout, I got to spend a week outdoors, doing orienteering and rock climbing, playing sports and learning drill—and I just loved the whole experience,” he said. “From that time I had it in my mind that the infantry was what I wanted to do: I liked working outdoors, I liked working with people in teams and working together to accomplish whatever it is we’re doing.

“I wanted to have that active kind of lifestyle of sports and being outdoors and working hard and playing hard.”

Stevenson arrived at Royal Roads in the fall of 1984. He was reintroduced to rugby—he was a member of the varsity team all four years, and captain for his last two—and he began working toward a degree in military and strategic studies. After second year, many of his classmates moved to RMC but Stevenson stayed behind, for the academic course, for rugby “and because I had a girlfriend In Victoria.”

Since Roads was a small school—about 200 or so students at a time; there would be 23 in Stevenson’s graduating class—you got to know everybody. The class ratios were small, with student-to-professor ratios of 6:1 or 8:1. “It made for a really dynamic, vibrant seminar-based education for most of our subjects,” he said.

Again, because of the small student body, seldom was a cadet denied the chance to participate in anything, be it varsity sports, intramural sports, music, or important duty on parade as part of the Cadet Wing. 

“In my third year I was able to play the tuba in the band at mess dinners or other events, be captain of the rugby team for the college, play intramural sports for my flight, and carry the College Colour as part of the graduation parade, and when the College received the Freedom of the City of Victoria in the spring of 1987,” Stevenson recalled.

There were close relationships with regular-force units on Vancouver Island. At the time, the 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was based there, and Stevenson recalled the opportunities that presented. “Over the Christmas break, there would be a week of contact training. I got to spend a week doing winter warfare training with the Princess Patricias in my third year. That was a great opportunity. It really helped me to prepare myself for when I eventually graduated and joined an operational unit.”

Naturally there was a rivalry with the big-brother campus in Kingston. “We would joke that we were the real military college,” Stevenson chuckled. “We took pride in a lot of the people who were there were going into the operational occupations of the navy or the army or air force, and we took pride in our leadership development to go into those roles.

“Not that our friends who went to RMC to study engineering weren’t necessarily going to go into those roles, either, but there was an intercollege rivalry. Whether it was grounded or not, that’s what we thought. We thought we were the real military college.”

Stevenson’s first posting after graduation was with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment in Baden-Solingen, Germany, where he was a platoon commander for three years. He met his future wife there—France Hebert, an aerospace engineer, was studying engineering physics at RMC, from where she would graduate in 1992—and during that time, he spent six months at Fort Bragg, N.C., taking the special forces course with the U.S. Army.

“I never served in the special forces, but I did the training and that exposure to special forces training helped me as an intelligence analyst, and also helped me as a leader, in terms of working with small, very diverse groups of people, doing complex tasks.

“As an Airborne wannabe, it certainly had me thinking in 1990 I was on a path into the Airborne regiment but it didn’t lead me there. There just weren’t openings at the time.”

Having missed the opportunity to serve with the Airborne regiment got Stevenson thinking about other careers he might wish to pursue, and one that caught his fancy was in the intelligence field. It would be an area, he surmised, where he could apply his education more directly than he could as an operational staff officer.

After two years at Petawawa as a staff officer in the special services headquarters, Stevenson moved to the intelligence branch. Posted to Ottawa with the woman who by now was his wife in 1993, he served three years as director general of the intelligence organization at NDHQ, analyzing the affairs of the former Yugoslavia. Then came two years with the 2 Electronic Warfare Squadron in Kingston.

After almost 15 years of military service, Stevenson left the Forces and went back to school. He took the Masters of Public Administration course at Queen’s University, specializing in its defence component. He’s been in the federal public service since the fall of 1999.

He began his career in the Department of Finance as an economist. His main file was defence but after the cuts to the Forces of the 1990s, there wasn’t enough there to keep a person busy full time so he also handled files in the agriculture and fisheries section, looking at spending proposals from a variety of areas.

Stevenson then spent 12 years in the Department of National Defence, the last six as the assistant deputy minister responsible for infrastructure and environment. Prior to that he was the director of cabinet liaison and director-general of policy co-ordination.

“Six years in the policy group at National Defence meant that I saw a lot of change,” Stevenson said. “There was the decision to go to Afghanistan, and big procurement decisions where, in policy group, we were asked to provide analysis and advice to support those different decisions.

“Those were complex problems to provide advice on, and they needed collaboration with other departments, like Foreign Affairs, and close relationships with the central agencies like the Privy Council Office, the Department of Finance and Treasury Board. That kind of collaboration in cabinet liaison and policy coordination were really about trying to bring together different departmental perspectives so our minister could put forward the best consensus view of that situation … what’s best in the public interest to meet the needs of the Canadian Forces.

“From there, you can easily draw an analogy into the rugby experience, trying to translate teamwork into a common objective in a dynamic and chaotic environment.”

For about the last year and a half, Stevenson has worked in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, where he’s now the assistant deputy minister of regional operations. “We develop the policies and manage the programs,” he explained, for such things as community infrastructure—water, water treatment, schools and roads, for instance—and supervise seven regional offices that administer the transfer payments for those things. “Education is the highest policy priority right now,” he said, “and you need good schools to have a good education.”

The education he received at a military college has served Stevenson well, he says, in all of his post-graduation endeavours.

 “One of the big things that a military-college education gives you is an enormous capacity for work,” he said. “The challenges of squeezing as much activity into any single day that you physically and mentally can is one of the things that you do throughout that whole experience. That capacity translates directly into your military experience, but in the public service, it’s one of the things that, in my case, helped me to take on the kind of roles that I’ve had and to do it with some measure of success.

“My current job is a very dynamic job, and I have to be able to prioritize my time really well, and know how to work well with partners, because most of what we do involves working with partners.”

Of course, linguistic duality has been an important legacy of the military college experience, and Stevenson spoke of Roads as being a highly competitive environment. “It makes you more competitive than people might otherwise be, but you learned how to work closely with other people to achieve, to win in competitions, whether it’s a drill competition or a sport competition.”

It also instills the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle, combining sports, work and community involvement. Stevenson still plays rugby with the Ottawa Senators Old Boys Club—“if I play six games between May and October, I’m happy. That’s just enough; it gives you enough time to recover”—and he also plays recreational hockey once a week. He’s coached minor hockey and soccer and he continues to coach youth rugby with the Ottawa Indians club.

“Those things have all been key to my life,” he said. “I don’t think you can take on a stressful, challenging job (without them). I don’t know what I would do without sports and staying fit. I wouldn’t have been able to undertake the responsibilities I’ve had without that. Those are all a natural extension from the military college education.”

Foremost, though, came the leadership, not just what it means, but how it’s done.

“Leadership is about leading people,” he said. “It’s not just about leading in a military operational context. It’s about understanding how to connect with people and helping them connect with whatever the task is, and to do things because they want to do them.

“Understanding that leadership is really about finding that connection that can help people bring the best of themselves and to inspire them. That’s not a management problem; that’s leadership.”

Stevenson and his wife, France, live in Ottawa with their children, Isabella and Alexandre, 18 and 15, respectively. Both youngsters play hockey and rugby, and France and Isabella are both black belts in taekwondo.

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