Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Power to Persuade

Willis McLeese has accomplished a lot in his first 96 years. From his WWII service in the Navy, to his legendary and lucrative careers in refrigeration and power, to the resort community he is building at Cobble Beach, Ontario, he has made the most of every moment.

Along the way, he developed a myriad of skills, from thermodynamics to time management (a must, for someone who runs several companies). But a key lesson McLeese learned through his many experiences is: The power to persuade is essential to success.

For all his philanthropic efforts, the cause to which McLeese has been most devoted is helping young people learn the craft of persuasive speaking. He has laboured at this for almost 40 years, particularly in support of the Canadian Student Debating Federation (CSDF). Most recently, he endowed the Willis S. McLeese Chair in Canadian Debating, based at Upper Canada College in Toronto and working with the CSDF, to bring young people across the country into this activity. The program is outlined at

McLeese’s belief is that if students are given the skills and confidence to speak publicly and advocate positions, it will serve them well later in life.

“Debating is a way to extend your influence,” he avers, adding, “Canada will always need great leaders.” He notes that being a leader doesn’t require your name on a ballot. Leaders come in all sorts, in every profession. What they share is the power to convince and inspire.

A small percentage of student debaters will grow up to be politicians or trial lawyers (at least, one hopes it’s a small percentage). But whatever careers kids pursue, someday they will have to answer questions like: What makes you different? Why should we do it your way? Why should I buy what you’re offering?

So much of life, and success, is about selling ideas. From Clarence Darrow to Don Cherry, if you can make a case, you can make a living. Teaching young people this craft is practical education at its best.

Personifying McLeese’s faith in this philosophy is Chantal Jauvin. While a high school student in the mid-1980s, she approached McLeese at a national debating event and told him what the activity meant to her. The two have been close friends since and Jauvin credits her debating experience for her intercontinental legal career. When I spoke to her from Thailand, she pointed out, “The most important skill that I learned was to listen to what others were saying.”

Indeed, debating isn’t just about saying what you think; it requires hearing what other people are telling you. McLeese echoes this, insisting debaters should argue every resolution from both sides: “They learn respect and tolerance for each other.”

In a rare deviation from the shrewd judgment that made him a success, McLeese has asked me to take up the Chair that bears his name. My early debating made it possible for me to opine in the public square (for better or for worse), and one hopes I can help offer today’s students the same opportunity. Our first step is a partnership with Rudyard Griffiths and his famed Munk Debates, commencing this spring. But whatever contribution I might provide, it could never compare with that of Willis McLeese, an extraordinary patron of the art of argument.

Theo Caldwell is the McLeese Chair in Debating.