It’s All About Relationship: The Long Run Interview with Philip Reilly

Long Run Consulting is focused on promoting and supporting the generation of executive leaders that is emerging in the not-for-profit sector in Canada. During the current coronavirus pandemic, courageous young leaders are stepping forward to lead organizations through the changes necessary to enable them to continue to provide services to their beneficiaries. Ed Wilson recently spoke with Philip Reilly, the newly-appointed executive director of Dalit Freedom Network Canada, a B.C.-based organization with a mission to bring hope and to empower India’s poor by providing access to quality education. The dialogue reported below is an edited and condensed version of a longer conversation.

Ed: Philip, can you talk a bit about your leadership journey? You’ve served in a variety of different contexts: church, nonprofit, corporate sector.  You could have chosen otherwise—what prompted you to choose to make yourself available to be a leader of people and teams?

Philip: It’s a great question!  For me, making myself available as a leader was not something that I consciously chose.  [My] leadership qualities or skills have always been encouraged by others.  As a young guy going through school and church youth groups, I had people asking me to step up. Like people asking me to lead this bible study group or this youth fellowship group or take a bunch of my peers on a camping trip.  And so it was always through others that I was encouraged to step out.  And the reason, I think, I was very attuned to listening to other people is because of my family background: Having parents that divorced and questioning my own self-worth, questioning my place in the world from a very young age.  Having people that I trusted, people who themselves were in authority, whether it was my soccer coach or my bible class leader, encouraging me to step out.  And so it gained momentum throughout my teenage years and then through university.  I was always a willing volunteer but it gained its roots because of people speaking into my life at a young age who I really deeply trusted and admired.  And they saw something in me that I didn’t see as a young man and they encouraged me. And so I think that now has led me to places, whether it’s the church or now through my work at [DFN Canada], to be confident in the degree to which I can say, “I think I have something to offer here” for the sake of the mission.

Ed: One of the themes that I’m exploring in my interactions with leaders today is the importance of mentoring and coaching.  Could you say a little bit more about the influence those individuals who encouraged you have had on your life—perhaps not just in the formative years of your life but as you continued as a leader? 

Philip: I have to start by giving credit to my grandfather.  Everything that I want to shape my life around, the direction I want to lead and parent and coach the local soccer club really has its roots in my grandfather.  My grandfather grew up on a farm.  His father—my great-grandfather—was a grieve.  In Scotland, grieves are managers of farms. So they managed a number of farms throughout the northeast of Scotland. But during the First World War, my great-grandfather was assigned to take some of his Clydesdale horses down to the frontlines to pull artillery.  During a placement he got septicemia and he died very young.  My grandfather was one of seven kids on a farm—I think he was 11 or 12 at the time—and this thrust him into things that needed to be done around the local farm and the farms that they were managing as a family.  And so he still went to school but he would walk the three or four miles each day to school, come back, muck out the cattle and make sure the pigs were fed and the sheep were all taken care of, all of those things.  My grandfather, if you were to meet him, was a very unassuming quiet man but led with great strength.  And I saw that model really early. I alluded to the fact that my parents divorced when I was young and so my grandfather was essentially my dad growing up. We would garden together during summers, he would take me out to his brothers’ farms and I would help with the cattle. What I know now is that he was pouring into me and how he wanted me to come out at the end of the day, despite all of the issues I was struggling with—self-identity, the loss of my parents’ marriage—by modelling that giving responsibility was the best thing for me.  He was also involved in leadership at a local small church, and he would take me along at eight in the morning on winter days to go in and turn on the heating in these little propane gas heaters so that the hall was ready for people coming in. It was all leadership.  And it was hands on. And he was modelling this.  And so it feels very natural for me to go about in the background setting other people up for success.  So I would say all of the traits and skills, despite all of my theological training and my university training and interaction with other leaders like yourself, really my paradigm or narrative for how a leader should be is firmly rooted in my very unassuming quiet grandfather.  And I’ve been very fortunate, even in the corporate world, the leaders that I’ve been able to interact with, have been all about this selflessness; they weren’t in it for themselves or their own gain.  So yeah, my modus operandi for leadership has its roots in this unassuming leadership and sacrificial servant leadership that allows oneself to be a model for others to follow.  Does that make sense?

There appears to be this shift in leadership where transparency is valued and, in fact, is a great asset for both the organization and those that you are leading.

Ed: It makes great sense and its actually a great segue into the next question I had for you. What are the values that guide you as a leader in how you conduct yourself and how you interact with others?

Philip: Well, it’s all about relationship.  The key that I find with being a good leader is that it’s all about relationship. It’s not about guarded relationship, because I value high trust.  I value transparency and authenticity. I think that there appears to be this shift in leadership where transparency is valued and in fact is a great asset for both the organization and those that you are leading.  And so, that is really important to me, to be authentic and as real and as transparent as one can be.  It doesn’t mean putting out your dirty laundry but it does mean that you answer questions honestly, that you listen well, and that you actually value those in your care deeply. With regard to the trust issue, I look back on my grandfather, and he would just leave me in the shed with the cows and tell me what to do and just get on with it.  My goodness, I was eight or nine, I was a city boy, and he just showed me what to do and then he left me to it. Now I can look back and see that he was giving me ownership because there were times when the cows were being stubborn and I had to just figure out, because he was off.  Actually, the way I lead the team now, (everybody’s working remotely, and that adds its layer of complexity to it), I give them the tools and equip them and encourage them and regularly check in with them, but I trust them. They need to know, “You’ve got the ownership, you need to run with it.”  You know where I am, if you really get in a pickle you can call out, because that is what my grandfather did.  It’s funny just how much is rooted with me in this one person who had such influence.  As I go through everything, the direction of where my life has gone, the style of leadership [I’ve adopted], and the type of man I’ve become, it is all because of my grandfather.  I feel very fortunate. 

Ed: Your grandfather has passed on, he’s not part of your life any longer.  What would you like to receive from those leaders, women and men, who are a generation ahead of you—because we’re in a transitional period where leadership is being handed off from one generation to the next.   How can people of my generation contribute to your further development as a leader?

Philip: There’s two sides to it, I would say. From my generation, we have to recognize that we don’t have all the answers although we might think we do. It’s very easy as a young leader when you’re thrust into a new role or given a new responsibility to think you have all the answers, when in fact you don’t. And so, in answering your question, there also needs to be an acknowledgment and authenticity from leaders like myself saying, “We recognize that we do not have all the answers.” Then I can answer your question.  Does that make sense?

Ed: Yes.

Having a leader who’s willing to spend the time and walk alongside and ask the difficult probing questions is really important.

Philip: I seek out mentorship, I seek out those who have gone before me and I ask the tough questions.  So having a leader who’s willing to spend the time and walk alongside and ask the difficult, probing questions is really important. To document and share meaningful insights of years of leadership, a willingness to share the pain and loneliness of leadership because leadership can be a very, very lonely place. And particularly, through transition or change, leadership can be very lonely.  We are not designed [as] people to walk alone. We are simply not designed that way.  I don’t know what that looks like practically.  Rather than [waiting for] young leaders to put their hand up, perhaps the onus can be on you to identify young leaders and say, “I want to journey with you for a year, and it’s going to look like an hour every month.  Nothing is off the table but I’m going to ask you difficult questions. And I’m going to tell you if I’m seeing something that’s unhealthy.”  I think that there would be great strength in that.

Ed: The last question I have for you is, what are you reading right now that is encouraging you?

Philip: That is a great question. You know what I’m reading right now?  Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café.  I am actually not reading anything that is leadership driven or organizationally driven. I’m reading Stuart McLean.  And part of it is, I said [leadership] is all about relationship. One of the key portions of relationship as a leader is your ability to listen to story and to tell story well.  I started listening to Stuart McLean when I arrived here back in 2003 and I just loved him.  But he has a unique ability to see human nature in a really unique way, telling grief, telling hurt, or pain, or mental health issues that you hear in his stories at a slant.  So face value you think this is just comedic but actually he’s telling the human story.  And that’s why he was so deeply loved. He’s telling the story of human nature, he’s telling the stories of how you and I interact with each other and the complexity and foolishness of life, all of it.  So that’s what I’m reading.

Ed: You started off by downplaying what you’re reading in terms of your leadership development but now you’re making it into something that’s all about your development as a leader.

Philip: And as a Scot, it was 50% off at Indigo at the time, so that was a bonus!

Philip serves as the executive director of Dalit Freedom Network Canada. Originally from Scotland, Philip has made Vancouver his home with his wife Louise and three children for the past seventeen years. Philip has had a varied career in corporate risk management and pastoral ministry before moving into the charitable sector. With family roots in Kolkata, India, Philip has been engaged in justice work throughout the world for much of his adult life. Philip is passionate about serving the poor and marginalized and the restoration of their dignity and self-worth through quality education to see their lives free from the threat of slavery and discrimination.

Interview © 2020 Long Run Consulting. Photo used by permission Philip Reilly.

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