Competition for the presidency of the unofficial Zita Cobb Fan Club grew stronger last night after the former Ottawa high-tech executive spoke about what leadership meant to her while delivering the 17th anniversary of the Ivey Business School’s Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership at the National Gallery of Canada.
Cobb, 65, drew upon her experience with Fogo Island — the isolated community in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador where she grew up and later returned after she made her millions during the technology boom. She created the renowned Fogo Island Inn that’s become a bucket-list destination for many visitors. As the founder and CEO of Canadian social enterprise Shorefast, she also created economic development, new jobs and a renewed sense of purpose for the area.
While the 2021 Canadian Business Hall of Fame inductee spoke for at least 45 minutes, time seemed to fly. She took her audience back to her childhood, when industrial fishing fleets were decimating the cod stocks and placing significant stress on the fishing industry. Families that had been making their living for centuries on the North Atlantic were facing a threat of resettlement, said the eighth-generation Fogo Islander.
“My parents were whispering to each other in the night about what would become of us, as if children didn’t have ears. ‘Where would we end up?’, they wondered. A terrifying thing for a child to hear.”
She recalled how some people sank into bitterness, blame and despair. Yet, it was the leadership of a few of the local fishermen, including Andrew Britt from Shoal Bay, that helped turn the situation around. Despite the men’s lack of formal education or economic and political power, they started a fisheries cooperative that would serve to rebuild the economy and save the island from resettlement.
“They were acting in the interests of their community, for its future, for their futures,” said Cobb. “Their leadership changed the outcome for us then and shaped who we are today.”
By Cobb’s definition, good leaders foster relationships around common goals. “They know that it’s not about them, it’s about us. They also know that it’s not just about now, it’s about what has passed and what is yet to come. Leaders act in the present with an eye on the past and two eyes on the future. They will change course, change sails and even change sailors, but they won’t quit until they reach that further shore.
“And, they are always asking, ‘What can I do?’ instead of waiting for someone else to do it. They don’t duck, hedge or deflect, and they take responsibility and blame and they share credit and they know that it’s their job to make more leaders.”
Good leaders, she also said, zoom in on what’s concrete, tangible and specific and zoom out to see the conceptual, the global and the universal. “Leaders are learners. They seek out different logic systems to understand the world. They are sense-makers.”
The alumna of Carleton University peppered her talk with quotes from various thought leaders, luminaries and such business leaders as her former boss and colleague Jozef Straus, one of the founders of JDS Uniphase, where she was CFO. “Every day he would say the most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing.”
Cobb was quick to point out that leaders don’t just fall from the sky. All leaders, whether of companies or of public and private institutions or of political parties, come from places, she said. “We must put communities of place at the forefront of this work because place holds everything. It holds us, our companies, our institutions, local governments, not-for-profits, academic institutions, institutions of every kind.”
Having places that are community economies is important to Cobb. There are 4,500 official communities in Canada, she said. Fogo Island is just one of them.
Located off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, the island is four times the size of Manhattan, yet has only 2,000-plus residents. The area is an example of how place-based economic development can build thriving communities, said Cobb. The inn has been described as “the most magical” place on earth.
It’s magical, said Cobb, because it has remained true to its environment. It worked with the area’s “inherent assets” while sticking to its principles of sustainability and of respecting nature and culture. “We didn’t copy any fancy inns from elsewhere.”
Strong communities, she said, share cultural depth and support social cohesion.
Fogo Island Inn has a residency program that brings artists from all over the world to live and work for periods of time. Artists are “the ultimate entrepreneurs and innovators,” she said of their ability to help us make sense of the world. “Their name is on everything they produce and they have the courage to step up to their vision and to stand out in the wind and take responsibility for their work.”
Cobb recognized that today’s divisive world creates challenging times for leadership. “It is very tempting to retreat to a more simplistic narrative of ‘either-or’ thinking and you don’t have to go very far to find things like this on the platform called X, formerly called Twitter,” she said, before asking aloud what probably many of us have wondered: “When can we stop saying ‘formerly called Twitter’, I’d like to know.”
On the hot topic of AI, Cobb had this to say: “There are many reasons to be excited by and frightened by artificial intelligence. We need to protect against the greatest risk, which is that humans will start to imitate machines.”
In the grand scheme of things, Canada barely makes up half a per cent of the global population, Cobb reminded the room. “We have reason to feel lonely and daunted by what we are facing,” she added. “Our leadership will make the difference between a middling future or one that is a leading example of a successful democracy with resilient communities from coast to coast to coast.”
She once again reflected on the generation of fishermen who stepped up to lead Fogo Island during troubling times more than a half a century ago, remembering the words of Britt, the fisherman from Shoal Bay: “When we stand together, we are not too small a people and we haven’t got to be afraid anymore.”
Everyone has a capacity to lead, she said encouragingly. “What each of us does tomorrow in the places we live and work will shape the future for one of the most nature-rich and culturally vibrant countries on the planet.”
Cobb joked that, as a Newfoundlander, she couldn’t end her talk without mentioning “the most noble fish ever to swim in any ocean.” She shared the good news that a recent government assessment found that the cod stock may be out of the critical zone. “It’s not yet a reason to rant and roar like true Newfoundlanders, but it’s a reason to be cautiously optimistic.”
The Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership was created in 2006 to salute D’Aquino’s outstanding contributions to national and international business, public policy and the volunteer sector.
D’Aquino, the former CEO of what’s today known as the Business Council of Canada, helped to introduce Cobb to the stage that night. He shared with his audience a passage from his new book “Private Power, Public Purpose” from when he and his wife, Susan Peterson d’Aquino, visited Cobb at Fogo Island in 2013. “I have met plenty of gifted Canadian entrepreneurs but none as electrifying as Zita Cobb,” he wrote.