Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Four-Minute Leadership: Dr. Rustum Southwell, CEO of the Black Business Initiative

Welcome to Four-Minute Leadership, a series of informative and inspiring interviews with Atlantic changemakers exploring business and leadership in the new economy, in four-minute reads. Our first conversation features Dr. Rustum Southwell, Founding Chief Executive Officer at the Black Business Initiative (BBI). The BBI is committed to growing a stronger Black presence in Nova Scotia’s business community, acting as a catalyst for job creation, equitable participation and advancing the economic prosperity of Nova Scotia.

What has 2020 taught you about leadership?

Rustum Southwell: Due to the current remote nature of most workspaces, communication and connection are more prominent right now. Relationship building has always had its place in leadership, but now most of our interactions are happening through technology, which requires a new set of skills to lead an organization. This year has also taught me to be cognizant of how social issues affect the day to day of your organization. Even though BBI is a business development organization, the murder of George Floyd rocked our communities. Our young agile staff team were adamant that we must act quickly. Leadership in 2020 is recognizing that sometimes your own judgement isn’t the only thing to consider, you need to actively listen to your team.

What’s a lesson you learned the hard way?

R.S.: Work-life balance is necessary, even more so now in 2020. I think it’s challenging for most people to be in this role and to also take time for yourself. With the current situation not only changing the way we work, but also increasing the stressors of change management, you tend to feel more exhausted and require more downtime. We’re finding new routines and senses of normalcy, but you need to take time for yourself or do things that you enjoy, including your family time.

What advice did you receive early in your career that has stayed with you?

R.S.: When it comes to advice, I always think of my father. He was not too free with giving praise. However, he always said to me: You can do whatever you put your mind to. Be well prepared and disciplined at all times. And, Hector Jacques, the first Chair of BBI, was the other one who drilled in excellence and intellectual honesty. Hector taught me that you take accountability for your team and the organization and take responsibility for your actions and don’t pass it on to others.

Who shaped you the most as a leader?

R.S.: This is an easy one: my dad. His life’s work was fighting for Black people in the post-colonialism era. His leadership style was that of a velvet glove with a steel fist in it. My father also loved the arts and he could come up with an appropriate Shakespearean quote from memory for any situation. He demonstrated the importance of culture and literature, as well as the importance of the arts and science in daily life. He was ahead of his time with the names my siblings and I were given; we didn’t have Anglicized names. Our names created in us a curiosity for knowledge and for open mindedness.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders?

R.S.: Education is important; it doesn’t have to be formal, but you have to be informed. It’s easier these days with technology at our fingertips and the ability to access the Internet, but you need to dive deeper than that. It also helps to be an observer. I like to observe human behavior, because sometimes people say and mean different things and you need the soft skills to be able to discern what motivates people.

What’s the most unexpected thing about you?

R.S.: When BBI had its 15th anniversary, we produced a fun little film. I actually wrote the piece and mapped out the scenes for this four-minute clip. Folks were surprised that I wrote the script, so perhaps my sense of humour. Also, if you see me now, you may not think that I lived a very active life. I was quite an athlete in my younger days, representing Nova Scotia in cricket and Dalhousie University at soccer.