Leadership and paying attention: remembering Jack Layton, five years later

Thank you, Jack. (photo of Jack Layton

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of Jack Layton’s death. “Untimely” is a completely inadequate word for his passing. It came too soon in his life and left so little opportunity to savour his historic electoral success. But judging by the outpouring of emotion — yesterday as well as five years ago — Jack’s legacy endures.

I’ll be thinking this week of my friends and colleagues, at NOW and across Canada, who worked closely with Jack over the years. I can’t claim to have really known him, having written speeches for him in one election a dozen years ago. I only ever spent more than a few minutes alone with him once, mid-campaign, on a flight to Whitehorse.

That was enough, though, to leave a powerful impression.

He was briefing me for a speech he’d be giving to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. And while he kept his responsibilities as the leader of a campaigning federal party uppermost, it was clear from the start I was talking to Jack Layton, Municipal Policy Wonk. He cared very deeply about cities and towns as a locus of sustainability and social justice.

Before that, I’d sometimes taken his facility with words to be a matter of skill and polish — and of course Jack was a well-practiced speaker. But in that conversation I realized it was also (and mostly) clarity of thought, combined with passion and conviction. Jack could speak so well because he did something that sounds simple, but that few people in public or private life pull off nearly as well: he fused the heat of his conviction and the depth of his knowledge with intellectual and emotional discipline.

One related thing I remember vividly: how thoroughly he devoted his attention to our conversation. You hear about how some politicians have a gift for making you feel like you’re the only person in the room. With Jack, it wasn’t ingratiation; it felt more like our conversation was the most important thing happening at that moment.

A deep capacity for paying attention: that’s worth looking for in a political leader. But more important, it’s worth nurturing in ourselves.

Thank you for that, Jack.

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