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What does it mean to be a leader in the digital age?

The digital revolution is driving societal innovation and change, in parallel to human activities that threaten the stability of the climate and diverse ecosystems. At this time of uncertainty, LEADS trainees ponder, What does it mean to be a leader?

The event featured opening remarks and an introduction to the program by co-founders Damon Matthews, Professor and Research Chair in Climate Science and Sustainability in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University, and Amy Luers, Senior Advisor of the Sustainability in the Digital Age initiative. This was followed by a ‘lightning round’ of presentations on their research by professors involved in the program.

After that, the 23 students and 11 professors were divided into three virtual rooms to further explore their individual visions for the program and discuss what it means to be a leader in today’s context.

When asked why they joined the LEADS program, opinions ranged from a will to apply knowledge for tangible action and develop the skills necessary to become leaders for transformation, to learning to communicate and engage with stakeholders constructively.

The program is hosted by Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec—ranked amongst the best university cities in the world. Montreal’s tech sector has also recently caught international attention, marketed as the “Home to a thriving intelligence ecosystem” in part due to the calibre of its academic researchers in artificial intelligence, such as Yoshua Bengio. Additionally, the city is highly multicultural, predominantly bilingual, and stands out for its grassroots activism culture fostered in the 1990s, a period in which Montreal was rated as the poverty capital of Canada. It’s no surprise that the concept of sustainability has been widely adopted in university curricula.

Within this diverse context, the interdisciplinary nature of the LEADs group was noted more than once as a favourable environment for LEADS participants to thrive.

For example, Titouan Greffe, PhD at UQAM noted, “I hope to gain experience and knowledge in areas that I am unfamiliar with or have explored little so far. I also think that this is a great opportunity to create links with researchers in multiple disciplines and to create synergies between research and action for the future.”

And as mentioned by Karina Benessaiah, postdoc at McGill University:

“Digital innovation can be a barrier and an enabler because it can be [either] democratizing or it can be something that’s part of an elite, and so it’s going to be really interesting [to see] what type of innovation we are talking about and what type of tensions or struggles are ongoing and recurring. […] I think it’s going to be a very exciting project and we will have a lot to learn. It’s actually nice because Montreal has a lot of people working on sustainability—each in their own corner—[who] want to breach that barrier.”

In their discussions, students also voiced their need to feel connected to the fruits of their labour. Being early-career researchers can be challenging when it comes to converting findings and suggestions into action. Many of them have dedicated most of their 20s and early 30s to the gathering and production of knowledge and now want to ensure that their efforts will reach the right people to make change happen.

For example, Chris Luederitz, postdoc at McGill University said, “During my time with the LEADS program, I hope to further develop my expertise in innovative communication formats. I’m particularly interested in learning more about how we can use digital innovations – from online media tools to machine learning – for improving collective actions among small businesses in support of sustainability.”

Elena Bennett, one of the professors involved, claimed that what drew her to LEADS was the opportunity to engage with people interested in defining leadership and adding to the conversation on how to train strong leaders for transformational change.

Similarly, when asked what leadership means to her, Catherine Houssard, postdoc at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) responded, “For me, leadership is a concept with multiple meanings. There are as many types of leadership as there are leaders. The leadership I would like to exercise is one based on authenticity and action. This means staying true to my values and leading by example.”

Damon Matthews, LEADS Program Director, concluded the event by thanking all the participants and organizers involved.

To Matthews, the key to solving so many of the problems that are presently facing the world lies in the idea of connecting and bringing a diversity of people together, as well as facilitating collaboration and learning from each other. He concluded,

“I think good ideas for moving forward come from very surprising places sometimes, and so if we can create a space here where those ideas have a chance to grow and to contribute to positive change in the world, I think that would be the biggest measure of our success over the next few years. Thank you all.”


To learn more about LEADS, visit