Postcard from Quebec

What Can a 17th-Century French-Canadian Explorer Teach Us about Leadership? Plenty.

April 2, 2014

Partner, NBBJ

I find Quebec City completely magical. So do others: it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The enchantment might stem from temperatures on my recent visit that hovered around minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with welcome and efficient central heating systems, triple-glazed windows and walls on houses often four feet thick. The “modern” core of Quebec City is completely ringed by British fortifications and walls built between 1820-50, inspired by failed American attempts to capture the city during the American Revolution and again during the War of 1812 (which the United States lost; Dolly Madison’s White House was sacked, and her china is still in Ottawa today). Daunted by these amazing earthen and stone walls and gates, we never again attacked. But just in case, even today the famously tough 22nd Royal Canadian Regiment is barracked within the city walls next to Porte Saint Louis. (So don’t try any sneaky stuff!)

Oh, French is also spoken everywhere here, with a tongue-twisting and wonderfully guttural accent, atop 180-foot-high cliffs overlooking the windy and frozen mile-wide Saint Lawrence River, on which I saw canoers miraculously paddling in the dead of winter! Well not paddling, exactly — more like leaping from ice floe to ice floe, while dragging a boat they launched into in the small areas of freezing water between massive chunks of ice, all while moving in the 3 mph current. Powered, I am sure, by unique and fantastically salty Quebecois swearwords when the crew was doused from time to time with burning cold ice-water.


Canoeing the St. Lawrence River… Or rather, pushing a canoe across the frozen surface of the St. Lawrence River.

You may be asking, “so what?” Quebec is magical, but many cities are. However, on this recent trip with my family, its history seemed so old and yet so relevant to issues facing any enterprise trying to lead, organize and inspire itself daily around the planet.

Quebec City was founded 12 years before the Pilgrims set foot in New England and built almost immediately in stone, so it is still there. This was a city deliberately designed, planned and constructed by draftsman and explorer Samuel Champlain. How does one set out to build a city? From scratch, from Europe with only a wooden ship and a 12- to 24-week voyage across the North Atlantic, by an architect and city planner who couldn’t even swim. Yet he made 27 crossings, so we know he was either brave or stupid.

Did I mention he was a contemporary of Shakespeare? He lived more than 400 years ago, yet there is so much we can learn from him about leadership:

  • He drew — that is, planned — all the time. Champlain made records of his travels as a mapmaker and draftsman. Plan-making was at the center of his thinking. He mapped the coast from Boston to Labrador with every twist and turn of cove and river mouth. He drew and planned his settlement and buildings far in advance, packing tools, hardware, mortar and tiles (numbered) in the holds of his ships. But he also planned the way in which his inhabitants would live and work together — he was a programmer, and his city is programmed!
  • He put faith in young people. Pre-city settlement, he trusted some young explorers to winter with the Algonquians, where they learned their language and customs: in particular, the upside-down language of love, with rendezvous happening outdoors in the woods, which were private, outside the communal and public long houses. Indoors, the logical but inverted dating rules dictated that the Algonquian bachelorettes, 1970’s TV game-show-like, tapped the young men of their choosing.
  • He broke bread — okay, pemmican — with the Algonquians. He understood that he was stronger with the Amerindian than by himself. By forging ties with the surrounding peoples, the young Frenchmen’s cultural exchange meant that the new American city would be supported by those who lived around it, those who understood exactly how to extract the riches — furs, timber and fish — of the forests and rivers that surrounded Champlain’s new city.
  • He made time for fun. Champlain instituted a process by which an individual took it upon himself to raise morale for the whole settlement. This was a rotating process, and inevitably the good cheer became competitive, with each successive individual trying to outdo the last in terms of feasting and entertainment. This endeavor is critical when it is minus 28 outdoors, but does not every enterprise face periods of metaphorical “winter,” when a Happy Hour at the right moment can lift the spirit and renew a sense of possibility? Even in the dusty halls of business schools, it’s been shown that high morale and a positive attitude can raise productivity between 30 and 40 percent.
  • He understood that survival and civic life depended on the richness of collaborations. But each member of the party was also given time and supplies to advance himself within the new city. Some limited numbers of hours a week were set aside explicitly for each individual to advance his trade or garden for his own profit and wellbeing. Champlain understood that only with a perfect combination of rich connections to each other for mutual support and some deliberate time for self-interest would his city thrive and grow. These hours were spent expanding gardens, so that there could be surplus crops to sell or trade, or blacksmithing, carpentry, hunting or fishing for one’s own profit.

Champlain was courageous. He imagined a future where none was, then figured out how to realize it. There are great lessons here, in what it takes for an enterprise to survive and sustain itself, and in the qualities of leadership that make this possible.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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