I do my own cleaning, grocery shopping, gardening… The assumption is that people in my position have others doing all these things for them but I like to be self sufficient. Housework and gardening are great forms of exercise and keep one humble.

– Hazel McCallion

She was born Hazel Journeaux, in 1921 in a tiny town on the Gaspe Coast of Quebec. She was the youngest of five children; her father owned a fishing company. Since the town had no high school, when the time came Hazel was sent to Quebec City and later Montreal to continue her education.

She began her business career as an office manager at a Montreal-based engineering and contracting firm called Canadian Kellogg. In 1942, she was transferred to Toronto to help the firm set up its new local office.

During her 19 years with the company, Hazel would be involved in the administration of many large-scale engineering projects, from generating stations to refineries.

In 1951 she married Sam McCallion, and they took up residence in the village of Streetsville, Ontario. Hazel began to get involved in local issues; in 1964 she was appointed to her first political position, on the Streetsville Planning Board. In the same year, she and Sam started up The Mississauga Booster, a community newspaper which is today published by their son.

Within a few years, Hazel had resigned from her position at Kellogg to pursue politics full-time. By 1970 she was Mayor of Streetsville, a post she held until that community was merged into the newly created city of Mississauga a few years later.

In 1978, Hazel defeated a popular incumbent to win election as Mayor of Mississauga, the 6th largest city in Canada. It is a post she has held through 12 elections, for an astonishing 31 years (and counting!).

But within a few months of taking office, the new mayor and her city faced a terrifying dilemma.

On November 10, 1979, a train derailment spilled a stew of toxic chemicals at a level crossing in Mississauga. There was a gigantic initial explosion of several tankers filled with propane, with a fireball that was seen from as far as 100 km away. Several of the cars near the burning tankers had the potential to explode, which would release a deadly cloud of chlorine gas into the suburban streets.

The following day, as the fires continued to burn, the Mayor and the heads of emergency forces made a huge decision: for their own safety, most of the city’s residents would have to be evacuated. Immediately.

And here’s the amazing part: they did it. Over 218,000 people were evacuated, along with 3 major regional Hospitals, in less than 24 hours…with no loss of life or major injury.

It was the largest peacetime evacuation in North American history to that time.

Though she sprained an ankle early in the crisis, Mayor McCallion didn’t let that stop her from doing her job. Leaning on her cane, she was always clearly visible to her constituents… leading press conferences, co-ordinating emergency efforts, and calming people’s fears with her no-nonsense attitude.

The people of Mississauga were more than comforted; they were inspired. They knew they had found a leader they could trust.

And in the thirty years since then, they have demonstrated consistently that they still trust Hazel.

She has stood for election twelve times, and won handily every time…several times by acclamation. No contender has come close to unseating her; her approval rating hovers in the 90% range.

In 2005 she was awarded the Order of Canada, and an international poll named her as one of the top 3 city mayors in the world.

She refuses to accept political donations, asking her supporters to donate to their favourite charity instead. And due to her popularity, she hasn’t even bothered to campaign in the past four or five elections. How many politicians can you think of who have that much faith in their support?

Naturally, not everyone is on Hazel’s side. As with any politician there are those who disagree with her policies, arguing she has held back Mississauga’s development as much as she has contributed to it. She has also faced several conflict of interest investigations during her tenure.

And yet …

Less than a month ago, the people of Mississauga – a city which has almost quadrupled in population since she took office – once again votedoverwhelmingly to keep Hazel McCallion as their Mayor.

So, the obvious question is: how has she gained such strong, consistent support? What leadership attributes have been the keys to Hazel McCallion’s success over the past 31 years?

Let me offer a few thoughts…

First, she’s honest and transparent: Believing that city governments should be run like businesses, she was the first mayor of a major municipality to submit an annual operating budget to residents for their review. Mississauga has had no debt since McCallion’s first term in 1978, and today has over $700M in cash reserves…something few North American cities can claim.

She’s inspiring and direct: In 2006, police were in the midst of a tense five-hour standoff with a man on a ledge threatening suicide. McCallion arrived on the scene and spoke with the man, telling him to come down so emergency crews could deal with other people who needed them more. Disarmed by her directness, the man calmed down immediately and surrendered to police.

She’s very clearly committed to her people: In over three decades on the job, Hazel has been tireless in her focus on the people of Mississauga, taking every opportunity to meet and talk to them.

And finally, this lady is tough and resilient – always has been. She didn’t let a sprained ankle put her on the sidelines during the 1979 train derailment crisis…she led the way with her foot in a cast. When she was hit by a truck at a pedestrian crossing in 2003 (at the age of 82), she spent a few days in hospital… then returned to work, commenting wryly “The pickup truck is still in being repaired.”

Honest and transparent; inspiring and direct; committed to her people; tough and resilient. As a definition of leadership, I think those cover the territory pretty well.

Hazel McCallion is living proof that the media’s fascination with youth is highly misdirected.