“My subordinates took time to reach out and let me learn how to lead” – Exclusive interview with Vice-Admiral Mark Norman (ret.)

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman (ret.)

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be in touch with Vice-Admiral (ret.) Mark Norman, former Vice Chief of the Defence Staff of Canada. A man for whom I have tons of respect and admiration. He gladly accepted to respond to a few questions for my blog. To that end, we had an extremely pleasant discussion on the phone. Here is the content of our exchange.

Vice-Admiral Norman, as you can see with the name of my blog, books about history (mainly military) are among my main subjects of interest. Are you an avid reader? If so, what are your favorite subjects?

Compared to others, I am not an avid reader. Surprisingly, I don’t read military history directly. I do however enjoy three broad areas of books. 1) believable fiction – often based in an imaginary world. For example, I was recently absorbed by the Dune trilogy. This is a brilliant story. 2) the pseudo-realist genre, whose stories are based on reality. I’m a big fan of James Bond, the Jason Bourne series, Jack Ryan and Dan Brown for example. And 3) non-fiction. I like more analytical pieces and variations of military history. In that regard, I have recently read Destined for War by Graham Allison, books about leadership by retired generals like Colin Powell and Rick Hillier. I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I will occasionally dive into naval history, and I have read different translations of Sun Tzu. This said, I am less active in that last category than I am in the two others.

I’m currently reading The Irregulars by Jennet Conant about Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for example). I should read more, but I am more attracted to the areas of current day fiction. This said, books were building stones in my career.

I’m a big fan of James Bond. […] In my opinion, Daniel Craig modernized James Bond as a character. He’s a great combination of different characters and he brought the chapter to a nice close. This is a great franchise.

You asked about James Bond, I really enjoyed the last movie No Time to Die. I vividly remember the first Bond movie I watched, Live and Let Die. I naturally read the books and A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson, which was the inspiration for Ian Fleming. In my opinion, Daniel Craig modernized James Bond as a character. He’s a great combination of different characters and he brought the chapter to a nice close. This is a great franchise.

We don’t have the necessary mindset and the intellectual framework to look at security beyond the superficial and episodic.

What is the biggest threat (country or other) to Canada’s national security and why?

That’s a tough question. I would suggest however, that the main threats are, first, a combination of denial and ignorance, notably at the leadership level, where the significance of what is happening is downplayed. As if this is somebody else’s problem. We don’t have the necessary mindset and the intellectual framework to look at security beyond the superficial and episodic. We pay some attention when we need to. But we don’t internalize the gravity and consistency that it should have.

Second, for more than 20 years, there has been a proliferation of threats by non-state actors. We need just think about 9/11 and Al Qaida. These threats to global security have not gone away; they simply went below the surface and mutated but are now back.

There is also the concerning rise and resurgence of great power politics. A surging Russia, coupled with significant belligerent actions by the Beijing régime, which are all increasingly disturbing.

Third, the current reality is that security is a much more convoluted and complicated system than what it used to be. Problems proliferate in different ways, in the digital, cyber security, health, medical, pandemic, environmental, transnational crime and immigration sectors, just to name these examples.

In Canada, We always enjoyed a significant degree of natural physical security and the comfort that goes with it. Notably because of our geography, which has given us an underlying sense of arrogance. But it would be naïve to think that it will keep being that way.

In the defense and security sector, the whole concept of security integration has evolved. How we look at and deal with it requires more sophistication. For example, global trade and security are interconnected but they are seldom discussed in the same context. These are growing and disturbing trends that will occasionally keep me up at night. Sadly, in Canada, we are not thinking this through. We always enjoyed a significant degree of natural physical security and the comfort that goes with it. Notably because of our geography, which has given us an underlying sense of arrogance. But it would be naïve to think that it will keep being that way.

For example, the pandemic has shown us that what happens on the other side of the world affects us directly at home.  And we can never be too prepared to face risks to our way of life, personal freedom, security, etc. We must be ready, and we can’t assume that we’ll be warned. The bottom line is that everything is interconnected, and we are not immune.

We need to cope with the fragility of the global supply chain for example, which affects people daily.

I know, it might sound cliché, but we live in a rapidly changing world. We need to cope with the fragility of the global supply chain for example, which affects people daily. For example, look at the current issues with, semi-conductors, tires, books, fuel, and groceries. Overall, we need to deal with the fragility and weaknesses of these global system. The pandemic was the result of a non-thinking virus; some of these bad actors we’ve just discussed might however decide to act maliciously and where would we be. Panic might be imposed on the global system, creating enormous problems. We need to pay closer attention to that.

The sailors – junior and senior alike – took time to reach out and let me learn how to lead. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They had a tremendous impact on me.

Who do you consider played a determining role in your career?

I don’t want to get into giving specific names, but there are three categories of people who influenced my career in a significant way. First, my father served in the military (Army) too. From an early age, the military intrigued me. He and his friends were a significant influence on me. The military environment and culture were therefore not foreign to me. He was a great source of motivation, in a passive yet significant way, but he did not put any pressure on me. When we lived in Kingston for example, I had a small boat and I got an early taste for being on the water. I used to joke that his early attempts to take me camping convinced me that I didn’t want to be in the Army. Those are two small examples of what influenced me in my choice.

Second, in the military structure, you have superiors, peers and subordinates. My traditional superiors and those who were responsible for my training were another influence on me. There were bad examples throughout my early career of course, but for the most part, the good examples outnumbered them.

Third, those who contributed in the most significant way to my development as a military officer were in the third category, my subordinates. What I learnt from them was exceptional. I felt that as an officer, it was important that I took interest in them. For their part, they responded positively and invested in me. The sailors – junior and senior alike – took time to reach out and let me learn how to lead. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They had a tremendous impact on me.

This said, I couldn’t have succeeded if any one of those three pieces had been missing.

If I decide to write my memoirs, I would evoke my broader experiences, likely animated with some stories that I would hope to be humorous and educational.

Do you plan to write your memoirs?

I have given the idea a lot of thought – on and off. I’m actually reading Nothing But the Truth (Signal)by Marie Henein (my lawyer). Her book has taught me that there is value in telling an interesting story. If I went down that path, I would write about my broader experiences, likely animated with some stories that I would hope to be humorous and educational. I would like people to discover what helped me on my own journey. I’m in a phase where I think I should probably do it. We’ll see, I guess.

Many sincere thanks for the generosity of your time, Vice-Admiral Norman, and I am certainly looking forward to speaking again soon with you and eventually reading your memoirs. Based on our discussion, I’m pretty sure it will be a fascinating book.

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