The Human Element


June 8, 2024

Words by: Francesca Roznicki

Photography by: Steven Hope

A psychological approach to leadership

In 2007 and 2008, A. D. Williams Engineering experienced an unfathomable tragedy when it lost multiple CEOs and high-ranking executives in two separate plane crashes just five months apart. Naseem Bashir, then a Calgarian, was tasked with stepping into the role left vacant by these executives. Bashir moved his family to Edmonton and immediately began managing a company mired in crisis. His ability to assess risk, strategically plan, and understand the psychology of people helped him excel as an “accidental CEO.” Fifteen years later, Bashir reflects on how this tragedy has shaped his life, his interest in psychology and how he created a legacy. 

“I describe myself as someone who is very risk-averse. It comes from ultimately being tested in the most extreme risk environment you can imagine when running companies. The essence is that mistakes were made, and that’s how I ended up as an accidental CEO; I was just another worker, doing a good job until the world fell apart at 8 o’clock one morning. The second plane crash happened on a Friday; the board meeting was held on Sunday, and I was making decisions on Monday morning. The stress that was created was enormous and had compounding effects for quite a while,” Bashir admits, further acknowledging that he didn’t deal with the stress in the best way. 

He spent years feeling off-balance, working long hours to manage daily operations, convincing the community that the business was still functioning despite setbacks, and creating networking opportunities with other CEOs. “I knew this was a challenge for me. There was a phenomenal amount of work to show the business community that the lights were still on. After 15 years of calling all the shots, I was done. I knew I had drifted away from my purpose. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ If you lose your purpose, you lose the mission. It was time to put a great management team in place and start harvesting all the strategic work we had done over the years. It was also time to let a team run the day-to-day while I focused on big-picture stuff and living at a more relaxed pace.

Since then, Bashir has spent most of his days working in governance, providing strategic advice to other CEOs, and learning about people and the psychology of teams. “I was on a panel quite a few years ago with five other CEOs at MacEwan University and somebody asked, ‘If you were to go back to school today, what would you take?’ Every single one of us said psychology—because, ultimately, when it comes to running companies, it’s really about working with people. If you want to find a way to encourage people, give feedback, communicate, understand your customers, demographics, and politics; it’s really a study of psychology.

It’s about asking: what makes people tick? But also, what makes me tick? I’ve got a satellite phone in my backpack every time I hike. I am that guy. I am risk-averse. Understanding people’s psychology (as well as your own) allows CEOs to get more high-performing employees than if you just try to push staff through the pipe. The secret, I’ve learned, after all these years of running companies, has to do with understanding people. How do you get them to love what they do, perform well, and encourage them to progress in their careers? To me, it’s magic when you can make that happen.”

Now, Bashir spreads his knowledge to others. “Once we’ve got everything we need, we move to the phase that talks: transcendence. This is where you have learned so much that your obligation as a human on this planet is to share. You are now enhancing somebody else’s life because of what you’ve done in yours. Is there a better job than that? Hopefully, if people listen, we can keep them from making the same mistakes. When you keep sharing your wealth of knowledge, you extend human life even longer. Maybe we can even share beyond that and impact the second and third generations. There is no limit to how far our knowledge can go if we’re willing to share.”

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