A Q&A On Courage with the President of Royal Roads University

Guest Editor Ian Chisholm sits down with Dr. Philip Steenkamp, president of Royal Roads University, to discuss empathy and courage — and the core values of leadership.

Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet

Midway through the conversation with Dr. Philip Steenkamp, the president and vice-chancellor of Royal Roads University paraphrases that inimitable leader Winston Churchill.

“Courage is the most esteemed of values because it’s the one that informs every other,” Steenkamp says.

It’s a hot afternoon in late July, and Steenkamp has joined guest editor Ian Chisholm at the Douglas office to share his insights into leadership, gleaned from a 17-year career in public service, as well as his more recent roles at several B.C. universities.

Whether named directly or not, the idea of courage — and stepping up — underlies the entire discussion.

“If you keep your head down, it can be a nice quiet life,” Steenkamp says. “But you won’t necessarily have the [same] opportunities than if you’re prepared to step in.”

His own career is defined by not keeping his head down, from taking on the difficult assignments at the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation in the 1990s to his recent vlogs about Black Lives Matter and the important distinction between statues and history.

Ian Chisholm (IC): What brought you to Royal Roads?

Phillip Steenkamp (PS): Well, just prior to coming to Royal Roads, I was at UBC. And I would say that the switch from UBC to Royal Roads was like moving from the Queen Mary to a speedboat. What drew me to Royal Roads was the size. It’s a much smaller, very nimble, very flexible, very entrepreneurial university. And I really saw the opportunity to shape an institution in a way that it could really respond to the very rapidly changing society we currently live in. It was that opportunity to work in a place where you could really influence direction … There’s something so special about this place: its 10,000-plus years of Indigenous history and how important a site it was for them, then its colonial history with the Dunsmuirs and the military history. There’s a great story there.

IC: A third of your term so far has been the time of COVID. How far into the future are you looking?

PS: It’s our 25th anniversary this year as a public university. As you can imagine, we had planned a very different year. We were going to have lots of great community engagement and launch our new vision. Last year, I took the opportunity to start a vision process for the university, which asked the fundamental question: “We’re turning 25. What do we want to look like when we turn 50? In 2045, what kind of university do we want to be?”

We had a great internal discussion around that. Then we went out externally to talk to some of our key community partners and stakeholders … We ended up with this fantastic new vision statement: To inspire people with the courage to change the world. We heard from a lot of people, particularly our alumni, that it takes a lot of courage to put your career on hold and come back to school and upgrade your skills. So courage is really at the core of everything I think we do — and our students and alumni do. That’s the long-term vision. If I were to boil it down into its essence, I would say it’s for Royal Roads to become an engine of lifelong learning, and to fully embrace what that means. So people at any age, at any stage in their careers, can come get the skill sets they need in order to take that next step — whatever that looks like for them to become leaders in their sphere.

IC: You talked about the long story of Royal Roads and its location. What do you want your chapter to look like? What would you like to be remembered for?

PS: What I would like to be remembered for is inspiring and collaborative leadership. So having collaboratively established a new vision for the institution, [it has] set us on the path to achieve that aspirational vision. And that nationally and internationally, the profile of this university has been enhanced — that it is seen as the go-to place for a number of things. If you are a mid-career professional and you want to upgrade your skill set, or you want to learn about leadership or climate action or digital transformation, you go to Royal Roads.

If you’re an undergraduate student, and you’re interested in a challenge based curriculum, which we’re launching next year, that’s the institution you’ll go to, because it focuses on the key challenges society is facing. Our proposal is to do it in a very innovative way, not with traditional faculties and departments, but as a truly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach to learning around the key challenges of a time, whether that’s climate, income inequality or political polarization.

Whatever those challenges are, we train the leaders for the future to deal with these issues. I want to be known as the president who put the university on that path.

IC: When was your first hint that leadership was something you would spend your life doing?

PS: I would probably say it’s when I worked at the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. So I started in that ministry in the mid 1990s as a co-op student, if you can believe that, but there was so much change and movement in the ministry, that within two years, I was a deputy minister. I moved through the ranks very quickly. There was a lot of political turmoil in the province.

The Nisga’a Treaty was under negotiation, and it was highly contested. There was generally lots of anxiety in the non-Indigenous community about what it might mean. I just loved being in the middle of all that. I put my hand up for all the tough assignments. That’s how I got to where I was so quickly. The learning for me was really to lean in — difficult issues, challenging issues, don’t avoid them.

Lean in and put your hand up. You’ll find just a world of opportunity, if you do that.

IC: What did you learn about dealing with conflict?

PS: Listen, listen, listen to people. If you think you have all the answers, you quickly run into trouble. I really had to [practice] deep listening. Even if you didn’t agree with things, you had to let people speak, because a lot of it was almost therapeutic. It’s people with a ton of anxiety about things, needing to talk. And through that experience, I really came to understand the importance of understanding culture.

Most importantly — and this value has really come to the forefront in the last little while — is empathy. Really trying to understand where people are coming from, and what they are feeling and thinking. If you can do that, even if you don’t agree, it really helps you understand their perspective and respond to them and engage in a constructive dialogue.

IC: What leadership mistakes do you think you’ve made along the way?

PS: It’s probably not dealing with conflict as soon as I should have dealt with it or not dealing with performance. I think you almost convince yourself that things are going to change. But if you don’t deal with underperformance or poor performance, it’s very demoralizing for an organization. So I would say those were some mistakes early on: taking too long to deal directly with conflict or to deal with subpar performance.

IC: What are some of the core values that you’ve been able to centre yourself around, regardless of the circumstances around you?

PS: I would say, although I didn’t really understand empathy early on in my early leadership positions, it was a value for me, just not articulated in that way. And as I’ve gone on in my career, the value of empathy is so apparent to me. Trying to understand what people are thinking and feeling has been absolutely critical in terms of determining what actions we’ve taken and how we’ve responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. So starting with empathy, and starting with a focus on people, has been a core value throughout my career. The other one is collaboration and engagement.

I learned that early on in the world of Indigenous relations and treaty negotiations. Solutions emerge from having a diversity of input. The other one is creativity. Whether it’s government ministries, Indigenous relations or the university setting and the multiple responsibilities involved, you’re often dealing with really wicked problems, and you need creative solutions. Then the last one is something I’ve looked to all my career: courage. That’s why I’m so excited that courage is now at the core of this new Royal Roads vision. I didn’t force it in there, it actually came through organically.

IC: Why courage?

PS: Many situations require a lot of courage.

The last few months, we’ve seen so many examples. I’ve been doing weekly video messages to the community, and the first one I did was on courage. It was talking about the frontline workers, and how we all personally needed courage to move through this — and why courage is such an important value.

IC: In those messages, you’ve been open about how listening to people with lived experience of discrimination and racism is one of the most important things white people can do to be better allies. How does an institution like Royal Roads approach the challenges of dealing with institutional racism and fostering a more diverse workplace?

PS: I’ll talk about some of what we’re doing, specifically at Royal Roads. The George Floyd killing sparked this huge movement, not only in America, but around the world. Obviously, it’s tapping into deep systemic issues. Early on, it became clear to me in conversations with the university community, particularly [with] Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, that while supportive statements were good, it was important to take action.

We moved pretty quickly to build on the work we’re already doing … It really is about diversity at all levels at the university. We know we need to do a lot more work in attracting Indigenous scholars, as an example. So I’ve asked for a strategy. I want three Indigenous scholars at the University by [a set] date. Sometimes you need a blunt instrument.

IC: You mentioned Churchill earlier. I’m wondering what other leaders have inspired you, more specifically in the last six months.

PS: Jacinda Ardern. Wow. She absolutely embodies empathy. Prior to COVID, she dealt with the Christchurch shooting and the volcanic eruption. And then she had to deal with the pandemic. And she deals with it all absolutely brilliantly. It’s that empathy she has, but also a very open communication style where she trusts people, and she builds trust with people. I’ve watched that in awe. Dr. Bonnie Henry
has also been a marvel. It’s empathy. It’s treating us like adults and providing us with
the information we need. Walking that balance between being cautionary but not alarmist — being calm but not complacent. She’s just able to walk that line quite brilliantly.

IC: What’s been the biggest challenge for you during the pandemic?

PS: I think the biggest challenge for me, to be honest, is to stay upbeat and positive through all of this, when you yourself are feeling uncertain and anxious about things as well.

You have to realize that in a leadership position, how you look and feel and what you say has a huge impact on your community.

Continue Reading: In Conversation with Ian Chisholm