The Chief Explorer: Roles

The Chief Explorer: Roles

The Chief Explorer: Roles


I have said that my primary instinct is that of a teacher. I have enjoyed the formal role of teacher in a wide variety of setting, including the following:

High School Teacher Sir Adam Beck Collegiate
Teacher Trainer Althouse College of Education at Western University
Trainer of Volunteers for Service in Other Cultures Orientation Program for CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas
Orientation of Participants in Operation Crossroads Africa
Adult Educator Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
Business Educator Ivey School of Business, Western University

  • teaching Organizational Behaviour Across Cultures, including helping to organize short-term exchange programs for the Ivey Business students in Europe and Asia
  • leadership training in schools in Germany and China)
Leadership Development The Banff Centre for Management
  Short Programs and Presentations at:

  • European Foundation for Management (Brussels)
  • Saïd School of Business (Oxford)
  • Schulich Executive Leadership (York University)
  • Faculty of Health (York University)
  Indian Teacher Education Program (Memorial University)

Teaching helped me develop my capacity to successfully engage in multi-tasking; addressing widely diverse individuals with different approaches to learning and different attitudes to the world; expecting the unexpected; and changing direction quickly in response to the unexpected

My teaching experience in a wide variety of institutions provided me with a strong foundation for building cross-cultural relations globally. Indeed, I feel the wide variety of skills I developed as a teacher are probably the single most important source of my success.


The term, “entrepreneur,” is not usually linked directly with the role of educator. Classically it has been applied to some select individuals engaged in starting new businesses. I have been fortunate to meet, engage with and learn from several such individuals in business.

But somewhat fortuitously my mind was led to see entrepreneurship as representing a philosophy of life, a set of strategic intentions and a set of skills that could be applied usefully in a wide range of sectors including government agencies, research centres, educational institutions and many nonprofit organizations.

I think this happened initially through my early work in developing countries. In several African and Asian countries I met with outstanding educators and leaders in social action agencies who had stretch goals for their work and were committed to high performance but knew they never would be able to attract the level of official support that colleagues in similar situations in more developed countries would be able to draw on. So to attain their stretch goals they developed skills both in innovation and in practicing the entrepreneurial skills that would be required to unleash these innovations.

I began in my thirties to describe entrepreneurs as “individuals who saw change as normal and as an opportunity to be exploited.” I conscious began to document how I and others had managed to create some high performing non-profits to address social, economic and environmental challenges in marginalized communities.
Starting with few resources except our contacts with some amazingly creative individuals, we began to collect and create processes, tools and other specialized resources that had a proven record for helping courageous, determined individuals to start important new initiatives.

The first major flagship product of the Innovation Expedition (the Challenge Dialogue System—CDS™) became a major organizing vehicle for most of these tools and processes. We positioned it as a flexible but comprehensive performance improvement system with a capacity to engage diverse stakeholders to successfully collaborate and innovate to solve complex tasks.

By becoming engaged with others in the co-creation of a number of new non-profits, as well as some major business initiatives, I was able to use these as vehicles for implementing some distinctive social, economic and environmental initiatives.


Ideas are important. But I quickly came to recognize that unless one developed some skills related to turning the ideas into action, few useful outputs would be accomplished.

Developing several of these administrative operating skills came out of my early efforts to work with my high school students in Operation Education (bringing students from Africa) and in my role as one of the founders of Crossroads Africa (sending young Canadians for short-term experiences in Africa). In both cases I was thrown into providing part-time overall administrative experience for these two new entrepreneurial innovations after I finished my day’s teaching and coaching. I took this on with no particular preparatory training. However, in both cases, I was aided by some incredible mentoring support from a number of outstanding leaders of successful organizations.

The stories of these early administrative and project management roles are told in the Excerpts from LogBook Two. Here I recount how my administrative leadership as a co-founder of Canadian Crossroads Africa led me to be schooled as an administrator by an amazingly thoughtful business leader, Robert Hertog, who served as chair of our initial board. He helped me learn how to utilize well the scarce time of our volunteer board members.

These Excerpts from LogBook Two also explore how my brash naivety led me to engage a group of top business leaders in London, Ontario as my personal advisors for organizing and operating our breakthrough project which helped create a national foundation, the African Students Foundation. My advisors included the CEO of Labatt’s Brewery, the leader of Huron Erie Canada Trust, the co-owners of London Life Insurance, and the founder and owner of Canada Linens. With the help of these kinds of friends it was difficult not to succeed. With success came confidence in my new skills.
The skills I gained in these early non-profits which I helped to create, prepared me for later roles as an administrator and operations manager in much more complex organizations including: Regional Director of CUSO West Africa, Executive Director of the Office of International Education at Western University, Education Director in IRDC, Vice-President of the Banff Centre and finally Chief Explorer of the Innovation Expedition.


Although some people knew me best because of the new information that I uncovered and presented to them in a manner that helped them dramatically improve their performance, I have never seen myself as a classical researcher, nor do I tend to describe myself, as some others do, as a researcher.

When you read the story of how I came to write a Ph.D. thesis (see Excerpt 19 from LogBook Three), you will see that the research output started with the building of relationships with a group of community innovators in the Buxton community— and it was aimed initially at helping them achieve their desire to create a community museum about their history in relation to the Underground Railroad.

As the challenge of this Buxton museum project began to take on aspects of some kind of research effort, the constraints of the subject matter pushed me into an “Oral History” approach to research even though up to that point I had not yet been introduced into to new, evolving, exciting nature of the discipline of oral history.

This type of research certainly improved my tolerance for engaging in ambiguous challenges with little certainty of gaining positive results. It also honed my capacity for engaging with and building positive trusting relationships with people who knew nothing of me and whose life experiences were quite different from mine.

In addition, my evolving development as a researcher benefitted from the impressive inputs I received from my lead tutors in my Ph.D. classes, the friendly but demanding support from my Ph.D. Advisor, Jim Talman, along with all the learning I gained from the extensive oral history travels throughout the northern part of the United States. All of these experiences, plus a summer at the Schonberg Centre on black culture in Harlem, helped me slowly pick up some of the skills of a researcher and were to support me immensely in my role as mentor to change leaders.

The next time I was confronted with the need to decide if I could comfortably see myself described as a researcher was in my surprise job interview with David Hopper, the newly appointed President of a unique organization dedicated to providing improved leadership, technology, content and contacts to important R&D groups in developing countries. The new organization David was heading was IDRC (International Development Research Centre). The stimulus for that organization came initially from Lester B. Pearson, our former Prime Minister. He served as the first chair of the board for IDRC and in the short time I saw him in that role he provided me with huge inspiration as well as some examples of best practices for helping major change projects to succeed.

I had been helping the new president Hopper and his key leaders get to know some of the most entrepreneurial, innovative academics in Canada. Many on David’s team did not know the strength of leadership in the Canadian system as they had been working mainly in developing countries for some time.

Thus in a meeting with David in which I expected to report further as a part-time consultant on my review of the Canadian system, I suddenly found myself in a job interview. I was being invited to become one of the early staff in what was destined to become the leading innovative research centre globally that was addressing broad social, economic and environmental challenges faced by low income countries.

I told David that I did not feel I was well-suited for IDRC as I was not an outstanding researcher—at least in the traditional way that most defined a researcher. He asked me to describe what I liked doing and which I felt I did well. I remember answering him in the following way:

  • I like to engage with an interesting group that is trying to develop a solution to some complex challenge that is important to the group and to others in its community.
  • I count on fairly quickly building enough of an initial trusting relationship with them that I can engage them in a conversation to help them articulate the key challenge or challenges they need to address in order to achieve their goals.
  • I think I have some skills to get them engaged in some strategic thinking to explore a wide range of possible options for addressing the key challenge. My goal here is to ensure they don’t drop into the trap of conventional thinking and start to believe that there is only one way that their problem can be solved.
  • Once they have a list of possible options for solving their key challenge I then enjoy helping them to brainstorm about the range of resources that they might possibly attract to their project and what creative opportunities they might use to attract these resources.
  • At that point I tend to help them start to link the range of options with the list of possible resources so that they end up developing one or two integrated options that have at least a reasonable chance of being achieved.
  • Then I turn my attention to helping them to understand the elements and tools of strategic planning—and engage them in a reasonably quick collaborative process for building a strategic and operational plan for implementing a solution to the key challenge(s) they have identified.
  • As they turn their attention to launch the execution of their plan I then provide some support for them to consider some key measures that matter and that might help them track how successful their early execution of the plan is.
  • From time to time I then like to reconnect with the team to review their success and to help them refine and adjust some of their action plans based on the results of their review of the impact.


David’s major response to all of the above was:

“Oh, I am delighted that you are actually functioning as a ‘research entrepreneur’ and that is exactly the kind of person we want on our team. We are not here to do the research. Our job is to stimulate others, to mentor others and to provide them with some resources, some tools and technology, some contacts and some best practice examples to help them carry out their change leadership responsibilities at a high level.”

Thus I became a player in IDRC which became the lead innovator in international development assistance globally for the next ten years. This role gave me the amazing opportunity to carry out this distinctive role in some of the most significant research and development initiatives in the world. These experiences were with widely different institutions addressing a diverse group of key challenges. My territory covered East Asia, Anglophone, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The time with IDRC was a defining moment for me and led me into an ongoing role with diverse clients in which the skills refined in IDRC as a “research entrepreneur” became one of my strongest assets.


By the 1990s through the insights gained through extensive experiential learning achieved through the above four different categories of leadership roles, I began to speak of myself regularly as both an “Explorer” and a “Mentor.”
By that time I had come to recognize that the pressures of a fast changing world built on knowledge and driven by global interaction and global competitiveness demand:

  • flexible organizations that can change strategy and direction quickly if required
  • organizations in which authority and responsibility had been passed from senior leaders throughout the organization
  • learning organizations which have the capacity to constantly reinvent themselves in order to survive
  • organizations in which ad hoc teams from cross-functional areas can be organized quickly to perform well on a particular problem before being disbanded


These kinds of high performing learning organizations require different kinds of relationships between senior leaders and employees and indeed among the employee peer groups themselves. The need is increasingly for coaches, for enablers, for guides, for teachers, for challengers, for sources of ideas, information samples and also for sources of support, courage and compassion.

This is the role of the mentor.

Mentoring is a daunting task but one that everyone can play at least to the limit of their own experience. It is fueled not merely by information, knowledge or experiences. It is fueled by a deep-rotted philosophy of life and a spirit of collaboration which sees leadership as an opportunity to serve, to learn and to grow as a person. While knowledge, skills and varied life experiences are significant assets in a mentor’s toolkit—the more esoteric tools of wisdom, joy and magic are also essential items, for part of the task is helping someone see things in a new way and to dance to new rhythms.

Mentoring is sometimes about being somewhat of a prophet. It is always about building a relationship and about experiencing mutual learning and mutual growth through that relationship. It depends on the mentor having to walk the fine line between having courage and commitment to their own ideas, yet prepared to acknowledge their potential inadequacy. It requires a delicate balance between confidence and humility. As Chip Bell has put it in his sensitive book, Managers as Mentors, “mentoring is more about a mutual search than about wisdom passage [and] mentoring works best when mentors are focused on building not boasting.”

Through my wide range of life experiences I had come to recognize that a new style of leadership had become a key point of leverage for nations, for organizations and for individuals in this highly competitive, fast-changing, global knowledge economy. Mentoring, as I have come to define it, is a highly flexible, personalized, customized and learner-centered approach to assist others to provide innovations for improved performance.

Mentoring, in my mind, should be seen more as art and philosophy—rather than science and discipline. Mentoring is highly personalized and is driven more by the mind and perception of individual mentors and their clients than by a huge reliance on learning technologies.