New book tells McMaster’s story of transformative leadership

University Hall top of building, flag in between trees on a snowy day

In his newly released book 'Transformative: McMaster University’s Tradition of Breaking with Tradition', two-time McMaster graduate Scott Koblyk explores the drive, intelligence and innovation required to take a mid-sized Canadian university from good to great.

“Here at McMaster, we must be guided by the great traditions of this university, but in this rapidly changing world we must be prepared to break new ground and discard old rules where necessary.”   

This isn’t a statement one might expect from a historically risk-averse institution like a university. Yet these same words were spoken by two different McMaster presidents during their installation speeches—Dr. Henry Thode (1961-1972) originally and Dr. Peter George (1995-2010) who referenced Thode’s speech 34 years later.  

Book cover for Transformative, a book about McMaster history and leadershipOver the decades, McMaster has been home to several extraordinary university leaders. While leadership styles have varied from president to president, their strategies around risk-taking have been remarkably similar. In his newly released book Transformative: McMaster University’s Tradition of Breaking with Tradition, two-time McMaster graduate Scott Koblyk explores these similarities—along with the drive, intelligence and innovation required to take a mid-sized Canadian university from good to great. What’s more, Transformative outlines how McMaster’s particular brand of strategic disruption can be taught, learned, emulated and adapted by other leaders.  

“These notable trailblazers are among those who have reshaped McMaster by displaying skills and attributes that can be developed and repeated,” said Koblyk. “They delivered profound change and impact using tools and strategies that are accessible to leaders of all kinds in organizations of any shape and size.”  

McMaster has grown from an established medium-sized university in Canada to one of the world’s top universities with internationally recognized credentials in research, teaching and global citizenship today, which Koblyk credits directly to McMaster’s strength in leadership. In his book, he delves into the history of Thode and George, two of McMaster’s most pioneering leaders, to detail how a conscientious pursuit of change can lead to these kinds of results.   

“Our most impactful leaders weren’t limited by fear or inertia. They were brave enough to pursue bold plans. They weren’t afraid to surround themselves with exceptional people,” said Koblyk.  

George, for example, emphasized a need for McMaster to be demonstrably bolder in trumpeting its accomplishments. Under his leadership, the University found new ways to make its diverse pool of experts more accessible to local, national and international media and to communicate McMaster’s successes in ways that inspire community engagement and investment.  

“Relationships are critical,” said McMaster’s current president Dr. David Farrar in the book, “but you need to have vision to sell… [McMaster spent a lot of time exploring] the areas where we can truly make a difference.”  

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Farrar, too, has had to discard old rules and forge new approaches to traditional university operations. “Transformative will inspire the current and next generation of leaders to face challenges and overcome setbacks on their way to achieving the transformations that make exceptional organizations, corporations and universities,” he said.   

Iconic business leader and Canadian philanthropist Stephen A. Jarislowsky, who wrote the foreword for Transformative, championed the creation of this book as an example of what can be achieved in the Canadian university sector.  

“This is a story of great, innovative, transforming leaders,” said Jarislowsky, who is a long-time believer in McMaster’s approach. “It is an example of what can be done in Canada, and I hope that other schools will follow this achievement so as to give Canada the best university system in the world.”  

Transformative was published in partnership by McMaster University Press and Media Production Services. It is available for purchase at the McMaster University Campus Store here and for free as a downloadable e-book. 

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