Leslie Dunning, of Calgary Alberta, retired from Canadian Red Cross (CRC) in June this year after serving as a volunteer and then employee for forty-four years. It is not the length of time that matters most but rather that she spent every minute of it with passion and compassion as her guiding compass. Many others deserve credit for the contributions they have made to both prevent violence and abuse and provide relief and healing to those who have suffered from it. At the same time, Leslie Dunning is the person who took the point as the CRC leader to champion the cause, which was sometimes perceived as an afterthought amid the vast array of CRC capabilities. She defended it, fought for it, and unrelentingly sought funds to help the deploy people and resources in the field of violence and abuse prevention, at first to simply survive, then to thrive. She is this month’s Up-Stander.
Until recently and even now most people embrace Canadian Red Cross for its amazing capacity for emergency response in Canada and around the world. For others, because so many of us have taken its first aid and water safety programs, this is the area that immediately comes to mind.
But now, awareness has been rapidly spreading around CRC’s leadership role in violence and abuse prevention, most notably in the areas of bullying at school, sport and in workplaces.
Visionaries such as Judi Fairholm and others among her CRC colleagues were the first to recognize that abuse and violence were often part of the fallout for disadvantaged Canadians. Among those most affected were aboriginal communities, the elderly and young people impacted by discrimination against race, religion, sexual orientation or any other characteristics that put them out of sync in their immediate surroundings.
These same Canadian Red Cross workers were also the first to raise the ongoing abuse and violence that accompanied disaster relief in far off places in the world. Abusers exploited the powerlessness of victims who were thirsty or starving, or homeless and orphaned. The CRC was the first Red Cross Society in the world to engage in these issues and systemically tackle with programs that provided relief and caring for those who have suffered from violence and abuse and then created evidence-based interventions to prevent it from happening to others. They have been doing it now for over twenty-five years, much of that spent flying underneath the radar of many Canadians.
Leslie Dunning understood what matters about all this, every bit of it, as soon as she saw it. So she took it on, head-on. She put it under her wing in a number of executive positions, most particularly as CRC Director General Western Canada and in her next role as Director General Violence and Abuse Prevention. Leslie, with her team, elevated violence prevention programming within the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. My last recollection is that approximately 20 other National Societies have developed their own safe environments initiatives. Throughout this time, Leslie has also been instrumental in advancing the Society’s work with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.
Notwithstanding all her accomplishments, what I want most to write about here are the personal qualities that Leslie possesses that make her such a special leader. There are many such examples I could cite, but I will limit myself to two of them.
In life and in business, most successful outcomes are born from decisions. The best decisions don’t rely on luck or happenstance but on choice. And Leslie’s choices are always level-headed, calm, considered and considerate. She makes them quietly then pursues them with commitment and resilience, fueled by sincere, deep, yet understated passion.
Leslie is a leader who always listens and always learns. More than that, she seeks to give back to others as she learns from and about them. In the process, everyone around her is the better for knowing her. Let me give you one example of how she makes this work, time after time.
Having completed her executive MBA at Queen’s a couple of years previously, she brought in one of her former MBA team members (an experienced high level executive) to share his expertise with a group Leslie had pulled together. Indeed, she had brought me in as well because of my expertise and I was in this group as well. Participants came from a number of private and NGO sector organizations, all with the intent of generating traction for healthy, respectful workplaces.
The MBA team member and I spent a few moments alone together during a break. I learned from him that everyone in Leslie’s twelve person Queen’s team saw her as his or her mentor and personal coach, just as I did. They, like me, would never say no to a request from Leslie to contribute to making a right cause better. And so it was both of us not only participated at the time but also have been committed ever since to advocating for respectful, healthy and safe workplaces, each in our own way. In short, Leslie gives of herself to help others succeed in their endeavours while engaging others around her to make the world a better place. This is leadership at its finest.
This has always been Leslie’s way, for as long as I have known her. What she puts her mind to seem somehow just to happen one day, without a trace of ego and not many people realizing just how it all happened. These qualities are also why so many people have turned to her for her caring counsel. I am one of them.
Business Accelerator, Culture Change Expert, Respect and Safety Specialist, Professional Speaker
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