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What TD Bank’s Ed Clark learned on the job

There was a time, not that long ago, when we deified leaders. We liked to believe that they were in control during periods of uncertainty, that, unlike us, they were born to lead, and that their decisions were right, or at least justified.

But times have changed. Thanks to social media, 24/7 news coverage and our generally more cynical world view, we now know that leaders, corporate and political, are as capable as the rest of us of screwing up – and often do.

So it's refreshing really, when you come across a down-to-earth leader – neither god nor dog – with a clear vision of what it takes to do the job well, and the vision to implement it.

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Trust Ed Clark, the outgoing chief executive officer of Toronto-Dominion Bank, who passes the baton to Bharat Masrani on Nov. 1, to set the record straight on leadership.

In his last speech as CEO, Mr. Clark came across as humble, authentic – and to this day – uncertain whether he holds all the answers. After his speech, Mr. Clark spoke about the value of listening, making mistakes and learning on the job.

"There are too many leaders who think their job is to yell at people. I don't follow that model. I'm different from the testosterone model," explained Mr. Clark, who added that his leadership style dovetails with his and the bank's diversity agenda.

"Turns out that women don't want that type of leadership, and that there aren't a bunch of men that want that either," he said.

To Mr. Clark, leadership skills come with experience, and he asserts that today, he's a better leader than he was five years ago, and even better than he was than five years before that. So in that spirit, here are five of his best suggestions on how to grow great leaders.

1. Listen.

Young graduates, Mr. Clark said, are taught to develop a "presence" and "take command," but the most important skill they can cultivate early in their career, when they still don't know what they are taking about, is listening.

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2. Learn on the job.

Credentials are great but their value is overstated, Mr. Clark said. The best place to learn about a business and rise up the ranks is on the job.

"Bring us well educated [candidates] who can read, write and do arithmetic, and we'll teach them banking. It's not that complicated. Businesses should be in the business of teaching specific skills," he said.

3. Hire people smarter than you.

"Running a big organization is not a job for the smartest person; it's a job for someone that can mobilize others," said Mr. Clark, who credited some of his success to hiring people smarter than himself and understanding that "inarticulate" people may be highly intelligent and worth making the effort to listen to.

4. People and culture are everything.

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For a leader of a bank, he focuses a lot of his attention on people rather than money. "For many executives, it is counterintuitive that people management is as critical as business management. Just as it is counterintuitive for many to think that EQ [emotional quotient or emotional intelligence] is worth as much as IQ. But we all know happy employees make happy customers make happy shareholders," he said.

This approach also sets the stage for a strong corporate culture, which Mr. Clark aptly describes as the things "people do when no one is looking."

5. Give employees opportunities to stretch themselves.

Mr. Clark credits his success to being given many opportunities to demonstrate his skills in a role he may not have been qualified for at the start. "Someone was always betting on me, ridiculously, and it turns outs I was able to do it," he said.

And he took the opportunity to do the same, insisting that some of his best moves were "betting on people well before their time."

But it didn't always work and sometimes leaders need to make tough decisions, letting people go. In those cases, Mr. Clark said he felt a great deal of empathy, having once been fired from a federal government job. "I know what this conversation sounds like from the other side," he said.

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In one instance, he let a colleague go on a Tuesday and then invited him to play golf on Saturday, all the while reassuring this employee that it was normal to be angry with him. He said such conversations are never easy and "the day it stops being painful is the day you should get out of the job."

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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