Marie Labrosse, a master’s student in English Literature at McGill University contributed to this story.
You might expect one of the highest-ranking women in the Canadian Armed Forces to be intimidating. In fact, Major General Jennie Carignan, leader of the NATO Mission in Iraq (NMI), has a warm smile and a spirited sense of humour. Her unique combination of humility and ambition, which shine through almost immediately in conversation with her, are key elements of her inspiring leadership.
As a child, Carignan did not see herself as a leader. She was, however, committed to shining a light on perceived wrongdoings, which she says made her something of a rebel in her youth. In the sixth grade, she quit school because she felt that the lack of discipline maintained by her instructor was hindering her learning experience. Two of her classmates followed in her lead and within three weeks, her teacher had been replaced and she returned to school.
“The principle of obedience to order is extremely important in the military, but it cannot be blind obedience,” she said. “It has to be a reflection of what is right and what is wrong. You cannot execute orders that you believe to be wrong.”
Even today, Carignan does not want the spotlight to shine solely on her. She is content to take the backseat and watch things unfold unless there is a need for her to step in. For her, leadership is a question of influence, not of power.
“Leadership is the capacity to influence people to do things for the common good,” she explained. “What motivates people is feeling considered and feeling that what they do is important to you and to the team. I’m not trying to be a cheerleader and motivate people, but I do think that it’s important to inspire people to be the best that they can.”
She qualifies her military career as a happy accident. As a young adult, she wanted to find a meaningful occupation that would challenge her, and she felt that the Royal Military College had the potential to offer her that opportunity. That sentiment never faded as she climbed the ranks.
In November 2019, she took on the latest challenge that her career has thrown at her: the leadership of the NMI. A non-combat advisory and training mission, the NMI aims to reform the defense institutions in Iraq. The mission employs 500 civilian and military experts who are matched with their counterparts within the Iraqi Ministry of Defense according to their field of expertise.
When she learned that she would be assuming leadership of the mission last spring, Carignan threw herself into studying the political and cultural environment in Iraq as well as the country’s history, to gain an understanding of the regional stakes. A journey to Iraq before her deployment was essential to her preparatory work.
“Context matters because the people who are part of these nations have a common history,” she explained. “If you are ignorant of a people’s shared history, you can’t relate to them or empathize with them when you try to bring them forward in their reforms, which is the goal of the mission.”
This preparatory work is integral to Carignan’s vision of strategy, which she defines as the ability to project oneself into the future and plan a vision of where one wants to go. This vision holds even when the future doesn’t unfold as planned, as has been the case with the NMI’s activities this year. Indeed, the death by U.S. airstrike of top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in January and the spread of COVID-19 have interrupted some of the mission’s key training activities. Nonetheless, these unexpected developments have not prevented Carignan from thriving in her role.
“A good strategy is what is going to allow you to fight uncertainty and then move forward even if you don’t have all of the right answers,” Carignan asserted.
The capacity to respond calmly to changing circumstances is one the characteristics that sets apart military and corporate leaders in Carignan’s opinion. The hierarchy of the military is designed to make the response to a crisis as efficient as possible and its adaptability is a worthy example for businesses, especially in light of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic
“In the military, there is a lot of emphasis put on leadership in crisis and under fire,” Carignan said. “You can’t manage people to their death, but you need to lead people when you are in a difficult and dangerous situation.”