Leading Through COVID-19: Leadership Lessons from Senator Tony Dean

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Continuing our ongoing coverage of the IOG's webcast series, Leading Through COVID-19 #leadingthroughC19, on April16th, IOG President Toby Fyfe interviewed Senator Tony Dean. Senator Dean discussed the current Covid-19 crisis through the lens of his professional experience leading the Ontario Public Service in addressing the SARS outbreak in 2003.

You can watch the full episode here.

When asked for his opinion on the government's response to the current crisis, Senator Dean remarked, "I think we're doing remarkably well -- and part of the reason for that is what we've learned from previous emergencies and crises -- certainly in this case, the SARS experience is very relevant. What we see today in many respects, is all of the things that I'd like to have seen during the SARS crisis."

He continued, "(SARS) was a shock to the system. It was a very significant wake up call, particularly because some of the things we would have liked to have seen -- a seamless and clear accountability structure, the ability to communicate risk in an evidence-based way, the capacity of the system to respond -- were not in place. That is why we saw some very significant reviews after the fact, in principle, David Naylor's report, which paved the way for the Public Health Agency of Canada, for the role of the Chief Public Health Officer, and for the call for far greater collaboration inter-governmentally on health issues."

He added, "...all of that infrastructure is in place today, and there's a question about whether we would have had that in place today without SARS. So, the SARS experience turns out to have been very crucial in preparing us for this pandemic."

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From a provincial perspective, Senator Dean stressed that "Ontario was very much alone in (the SARS crisis)" and that "it was very much an issue for the hospital sector because the vast majority of SARS cases affected hospital staff and health workers." In contrast to Covid-19, he

remarked that, "(SARS) was contained in a way that the current virus isn't - that's not to say there weren't a large number of uncertainties."

He credits the medical professionals and other "health system heroes" for their hard work "battling (for the most part) an unknown issue at that time" and for doing their best without the systems in place that exist today. With this in mind, he feels, in comparison, "we are lightyears ahead in dealing with COVID-19."

From a leadership perspective, Senator Dean stressed clear leadership and accountability being key factors in handling crises. He touted the daily briefings from the Deputy Prime Minister being a benefit to the clear leadership and frequent communication to Canadians. "Looking back, it was a pretty sound decision to appoint a Deputy Prime Minister - one couldn't have foreseen this happening - but a Deputy Prime Minister who's responsible crucially for intergovernmental relationships which are absolutely key here -- this is a touchstone of success."

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Senator Dean went on to emphasize that the leadership lessons learned will only continue after this crisis subsides, and that learning will only benefit us as a country in the long run. "There is going to be significant learning from this. There will be reviews like the Naylor report and one of the things that we have to prepare for is that all of the people that we have now working long hours in key positions are going to be pulled into an extensive review period beyond this, just when they thought they were getting a break. For those people this is an episode that is going to have longevity, and we are going to benefit from this, and we will do better as a country and as jurisdictions within a country the next time we see a pandemic."

In order to recover well from this crisis and continue to be successful across all levels of leadership, he stressed the importance of relationships, and working across departmental and jurisdictional boundaries as much as possible "Maintaining relationships in calm times and good times is absolutely crucial, and that pays enormous dividends when we go into a crisis because the ability to pick up the phone and talk to a colleague and share info is absolutely crucial." He continued, "...no order of government can get there on their own and we've been given such a wakeup call in this current Covid-19 crisis about the importance of us working together across jurisdictional boundaries to confront a life threatening challenge."

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In closing, Senator Dean shared his wish that we "...not lose the learning that we have today...there's lots of space for innovation at public sector organizations without getting anywhere near the line of political risk - and we can take from this that when push comes to shove, our public servants across the country are ready to innovate."

Thank you to Senator Tony Dean for joining us on the Leading Through COVID-19 Webcast. Join us for our next webcast, Thursday, April 23 at 12:30 PM ESTwith Janice Baker, City Manager of Mississauga, in discussion with Toby Fyfe. As head of the 6th largest city in Canada, Janice will bring her 30 years of municipal leadership to talk about how to lead teams in times of crisis and high anxiety.

You can learn more about the series by clicking here.

Thank you to our sponsor, SAS, for helping bring the Leading Through COVID-19 webcast series to you.

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About the author

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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