Leading Through COVID-19: Leadership Lessons from Mel Cappe, former Clerk of the Privy Council

4 minute read
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In case you missed it, on April 2, the IOG launched a free webcast series, Leading Through COVID-19 #leadingthroughC19. IOG President Toby Fyfe welcomed our first guest, former Clerk of the Privy Council, Mel Cappe, who led the federal public service, and the country, through the crisis that was 9/11. From that experience, Cappe learned crucial leadership lessons that can be applied to the current COVID-19 crisis. He shared those lessons in this episode of Leading Through COVID-19.

Cappe shared his experience from managing the 9/11 crisis, and offered key leadership lessons. He provided sage advice to leaders in a time of crisis, “Just remember that you got here because of who you are -- don’t change who you are. You need to go with confidence. You will make mistakes.” He also recommended that public servants have to step up, fill the gaps, and establish clear roles and responsibilities, and noted that there will be ample opportunities for innovation and creativity in this post-crisis environment. “How to mobilize the public service is partly to call on the experience that we’ve had in the past. Experience matters, and mobilizing the public service is easy if everybody knows what they have to do”.

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Cappe stressed that the nature of work in the federal public service will be dramatically changed, communication will be key, and human interaction is going to be different. “One thing is clear - what often looks like it is unrelated to the pandemic is actually intimately related to the pandemic -- this applies to both 9/11 and COVID-19. It’s like galloping and changing the saddle on the horse at the same time - you have to keep focus on the crisis and the priorities at hand, but also make sure that the trains run on time, the water is safe, and the cheques get delivered.” He suggested that government officials should be thinking of how to innovate in this post-crisis environment. "There are huge opportunities with technology and human capital in delivering high quality, high performing programs. Interdepartmental/intergovernmental collaboration is hugely important, and to make that work, personal relationships matter.”

"Planning is crucial so that you are prepared -- you will be prepared because you planned", said Cappe. He elaborated on processes and plans that emerged from the 1998 ice storm and Y2K in 2000 that helped the government address the 9/11 crisis. This was able to happen simply because plans and exercises had been put into place. To wrap up, Cappe provided his final pieces of advice for public servants during this time:

  • Stay calm and keep focused
  • Delegate and provide encouragement to your staff
  • Get sleep and stay healthy
  • Keep your mind over the horizon
  • Go big, go fast, and use your judgement
  • Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and give blood

Thank you to Mel Cappe for joining us for our first episode of the Leading Through COVID-19 Webcast. Join us for our next webcast, Thursday, April 9 at 12:30 PM EST where IOG President Toby Fyfe will be speaking with Sara Filbee, ADM, Atlantic Region, ESDC/Service Canada, who will be sharing her leadership lessons on how to lead in times of high stress.

Learn more about our Leading Through COVID-19 series here.

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Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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