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Redefining Leadership at the 2019 CAIS Conference

Students participate in an activity at the CAIS Conference at Shawnigan Lake. Photo by Laura Harrison.

For five days between the end of March and the beginning of April, I had the privilege of attending the 2019 CAIS (Canadian Accredited Independent Schools) Conference at Shawnigan Lake School, just north of Victoria, BC, with three fellow TFS students. The CAIS Student Leadership Conference is an annual event hosted by a different group of student leaders from a CAIS School. It entails experiencing a range of activities, from listening to qualified keynote speakers, participating in meaningful Workshop and POD Group discussions, and, arguably the most important, to meeting students from across the country and learning from each other about how to improve our schools, whether we are from Shawnigan Lake, Toronto, Halifax, or Montreal.

This year, the theme of the Conference was “Thinking Outside the Box.” In the Opening Address, the student and staff delegates were presented an introduction to this theme through the words of the host school’s Headmaster Richard Lamont: “I would like to challenge us to toy with and perhaps reject traditional notions of leadership.” Throughout the Conference, student delegates were encouraged to explore the quieter sides of leadership, rather than relying on the dictionary’s lacking definition.

“Thor builds his pyramids upside down.” These words, originally spoken by Bengt Danielsson about his fellow Kon Tiki crew member, Thor Heyerdahl, became a critical part of 2019’s CAIS Conference. Leadership is typically portrayed as a pyramid with the leader(s) at the top and all others below. At CAIS, this depiction was challenged. Perhaps a leader belongs at the bottom of his triangle, guiding others from behind, rather than commanding from above? Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher of the Zhou dynasty, famously said: “to lead the people, you must walk behind them.” His words were echoed by many throughout this Conference.

The first day of the Conference, students were introduced to keynote speaker Mr. Val Litwin, President and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce, who explored the importance of strong emotional intelligence as a leader; it is critical to be able to recognize and influence emotions from both yourself and others. Mr. Litwin also explored the difference between purpose and passion, and struck us with the words “passions come and go, purpose is evergreen.” He emphasized the importance of defining a purpose that caters to each person in order to live a fulfilling life.

Keynote speaker Oliver Finlay, a sports performance professional, spoke of the importance of maintaining a strong set of values when in a position of leadership. He believes that one’s beliefs influence one’s values, values which support and decide one’s behaviours. Mr. Finlay encourages all those pursuing leadership, as many TFS students do, not only to acquire values, but to follow them throughout all endeavours.

Ruddy Ndina, a successful civil engineer, spoke of his experiences as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the importance of a mentor leading by example and motivating others towards achieving their goals. Through his life story, Ndina spoke of the importance of mentorship learned from his father, of his eventual shift in becoming a mentor himself, and of how these two roles of mentee and mentor can indeed exist on the same plane – they are not mutually exclusive.

Keynote speaker Fiona Macfarlane, EY’s Managing Partner of BC and Chief Inclusiveness Officer, echoed Mr. Litwin’s emphasis on purpose in her speech: “Your life will be more meaningful if your personal purpose aligns with your professional purpose because you will be doing something meaningful every day.” Another part of Macfarlane’s presentation coincided with a topic that Toronto French School students will find familiar: the importance of a growth mindset. She believes that one’s abilities should be challenged, and that the value of a growth mindset over a fixed mindset can be seen in the development of personal resilience and perseverance in many aspects of life.

The final keynote speaker of the Conference was Rudy Massimo in his presentation "Leadership in Uncertain Times." Massimo spoke of his unsuccessful climbing expedition up Mount Denali in Alaska and the important lessons he learned throughout. He began his presentation on the importance of authenticity in leadership: one should remain honest and consistent no matter their audience. Furthermore, Massimo emphasized the importance of surrounding oneself with an environment that fosters open communication, respect, and trust. Most importantly, throughout his presentation, students learned about the power of positive thinking in order to accomplish one’s goals.

After my experiences at the 2019 CAIS Conference, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on leadership. However, the Conference did aid in teaching us CAIS students the importance of understanding the true meaning of leadership, and how this can be implemented into our lives moving forward.

I sincerely recommend the CAIS Conference to any future Level III and IV students of Toronto French School. The influence of this Leadership Conference is hard to put into words – it has certainly left lasting effects on the students who participated.

The words of SLC Headmaster Richard Lamont resound with me again today; he reminds us “to think differently, to think elastically, and sometimes to build our pyramids upside down.”

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