Lessons from Gord Downie

Last night Canada lost one of our favourite sons. With a letter from the Downie family, The Tragically Hip confirmed the passing of Gord Downie after a surprisingly long struggle with glioblastoma, a cancerous brain tumour. As a nation, we celebrated Gord and the band last summer with their final tour culminating in the national broadcast of their final concert in their hometown of Kingston. We gathered together in droves, joined hands, and celebrated as Canadians. Today we reflect on Gord’s life. Today we take the time to learn the lessons from Gord Downie.

Lessons from Gord Downie

If you’re not from Canada, there is a good chance you don’t know who Gord Downie is, or what he means to the country. Gord Downie was the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, a band that has been a part of the Canadian music fabric for over 30 years. Their evolving rock sound coupled with Gord’s storytelling style connected with and reflected the culture of Canada and “The Hip” became the quintessential Canadian band over their 30+ years making music.

But more than just being a rock star, Gord Downie had a humble and personal quality that allowed him to connect individually with his fans and the issues affecting the entire country. Gord had compassion and love that he showed through his stories, his family, and his quiet activism. Gord was Canada.

Gord may now be gone, but his legacy should live on for years to come. His willingness to share his life and struggles with us have left us with lessons about how we can be better leaders, fathers, and citizens.

Be Passionate

Gord was passionate about everything he got involved in. From the passion he showed for his music and stories in the band, to the passion that he showed as a husband and father, to the passion he brought to raising awareness for the Indigenous struggle in Canada while fighting a terminal cancer diagnosis, Gord was passion.

“I’m agile. I can play on the ass of an elephant. That’s the goal — then you can play anywhere.” — Gord Downie

Choose where you spend your energy and time, it is the most valuable commodity you have. And then bring passion to everything you choose to invest that time and energy in. Find a purpose in your work that you can be passionate about. Commit to bringing passion to your family as a partner and a parent. Be passionate about your friendships. Connect with causes that resonate with you and give them your passion.

Stretch Your Comfort Zone

Throughout his life, Gord Downie stretched himself and took himself to new places. Whether it was in the evolution of the music of the band, his personal music projects, his written work, or his style choices, Gord was always stretching himself. Downie’s musical journey included rock, folk, collaborations, and spoken word. He took chances with his musical style, with stories during live performances, and with the public causes he took up. In his final year, he took a stand with the Indigenous people of Canada through a book, movie, and album about the horrors of the residential school system. Gord never stood still, he never stopped pushing the boundaries of his comfort zone.

“You’re up there and you’re grappling with the paradoxical dilemma of feeling at once silly and sublime, absurd and grand, and that makes one do interesting things, and lends itself to grandiose gestures and a sort of disbelief that your small, tiny words are really getting out there.” — Gord Downie

In our own lives, we need to look for opportunities to push our boundaries. We need to take chances to feel silly and absurd. We need to make grandiose gestures. By pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, we can learn to experience our passions in ways that we could never imagine. Extending our boundaries for our family, friends, and social causes allow us to leave an impact on those around us in ways that we could only dream about.

Be Vulnerable

Perhaps the most publicly unique thing about Gord Downie was his willingness to be vulnerable without shame. Throughout his life, Gord was unashamed to publicly kiss his bandmates, friends, and loved ones on the lips. In his lyrics, stories, and interviews Gord publicly shared his personal feelings and struggles openly. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer, Gord decided to go on tour and share his music one last time with a nation even while struggling to remember his own lyrics and the people around him. Gord was publicly vulnerable, and that created a powerful personal connection to many of us.

“It would be hard for me now, at this age and stage, to leave a song without a glimmer of hope… I always like to have a glimmer of hopefulness, even in collapse.” — Gord Downie

So often in life, we feel the need to put up walls, to hide the parts of us that are vulnerable. We don’t share our feelings with the people around us, often even those who are closest to us. For some reason, it has become unacceptable and weak to be vulnerable. But Gord shows us that we can still be powerful in our vulnerability. In fact, it may be the willingness to be vulnerable that makes us powerful.

We Can (and Should) Change The World

The most visible social cause that Gord Downie took up was the plight of the First Nations people of Canada. Even while celebrating his own life in the last Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, Gord used his platform to speak up and call on the Prime Minister to prioritize First Nations issues and make changes. While Gord did enjoy a very public platform to speak up about social issues, he also made more quiet connections with social issues including First Nations and the environment and was relentless in his commitment to his causes.

“I stand in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations and all Canadians who find themselves with no voice in our present version of democracy, who are trying to come up with the entry fee that gets them a seat at the table where their pollution future is being discussed.” — Gord Downie

We may not all enjoy a national platform to speak up, but we can all do our own small parts to change our communities, raise children with good values, and stand up for those that need it. This past weekend I took the opportunity to walk with almost 300 men in the Walk A Mile in HER Shoes event in St. Catharines, raising over $110,000 for Gillian’s Place (our local women’s shelter) and raising awareness that as men we will not stand for violence in any form against women. While my cause may be local and my voice may not be as loud as Gord’s, my willingness to speak up, speak out, and stand up for women will help to change our society.

Thank You, Gord

For over 30 years I have enjoyed the music of The Tragically Hip. For over 30 years I have listened to the passionate stories of Gord Downie.

I haven’t always appreciated the power of what Gord was doing, but in reflection over the last year, I have come to realize the lessons that Gord left us all to learn from.

Gord, we will miss you.

About Tim Empringham, MBA

Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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