Naheed Nenshi on Leaving a Job You Love

Calgary’s outgoing mayor on making the decision to leave
Illustration by Kyle Metcalf

Written by Naheed Nenshi, BComm’93

“I’m so sad to see you go!”

“I’m kind of sad to see me go, too! But there is a time for everything.”

I’ve had this exchange countless times since slowly venturing out into the world again in July. It’s my rote answer. But it doesn’t ring entirely true, even for me.

Let me take you back to April 2021. It’s the Thursday before Good Friday. For months, I’d been asking myself whether I should run for re-election or not. I’d gone through multiple scenarios. I’d talked to dozens of people to get their advice. I had even had a regular video meeting with a team of close friends and advisors I call the “Sunday Morning Group” (though we never meet on Sunday mornings). And, for a brief, glorious moment last summer when it was safer, we even met in person a couple of times on the Hose & Hound patio.

The advice has been more or less unanimous: “As a Calgarian, I want you to stick around. As someone who cares about you as a person? I want you to move on.”

Now, what in the world was I supposed to do with that? I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my career. Since leaving the private sector and coming back to Calgary two decades ago, I’ve been able to merge my love of public service with what I do for a living. What was right for me personally was inextricably linked to what was right for the community. Or so I kept telling myself.

So, I went back to first principles: Why was I in this job in the first place? What was I trying to accomplish? Would it be irresponsible to leave at this critical moment in history while we’re facing five simultaneous crises including a public health crisis, a mental health and addictions crisis, an economic crisis, an environmental crisis, and a long-delayed reckoning on the issue of equity, including an uncertain journey to reconciliation and anti-racism? How could I possibly leave now?

And yet.

These days, even though I can’t always remember why I walked into my own kitchen, I do remember some lessons from my undergraduate days. I thought about Dr. Ron Glasberg’s General Studies 300 and 500 classes. Dr. Glasberg talked about the cyclical nature of time: how societies went from periods of transition to tension to transcendence to torpor. I’m likely applying this incorrectly even now (sorry, Dr. Glasberg!) but, maybe what so many see as a civilization in its last throes — a time of torpor — is actually one that is critiquing what it truly stands for. Maybe we’re in a time of tension. Which means, as we sort it out, that we can move to a time of transcendence. But how?

One thing I heard constantly during the summer of 2020 was that too many voices in the community felt they weren’t being heard. Was it time to make some room for these voices by getting out of the way? Was it time to make room for younger voices, more diverse voices? Or would the vacuum I created cause us to go backwards? Or was I just massively overthinking it all? Probably.

Ultimately, I have loved being mayor. All of it. I loved the crazy hours and the 30-event weekends. I loved grappling with really tough decisions that make a difference in people’s lives every day. 

I did not love social media towards the end and there were some days when I did not love my City Council colleagues — but I have really tried hard to live my life in gratitude. 

I tried to never forget that people put their faith in me. That I had the privilege to hold in my hand, even for a second, people’s hopes and dreams — their fears and challenges for themselves, their families and their community. I tried to never forget that enormous and humbling responsibility.

But I couldn’t do it forever, could I?

In the end, the decision came a little easier when I looked back at the time I was first elected. I remembered the promise I made to myself — a promise my mum and dad drilled into me my whole life: leave it better than you found it. And, all crises aside, I know that things are much better for so many.

Perhaps the most important thing for me has been to recall how I started that very first speech, close to midnight on Oct. 18, 2010. I was in a basement with far too many people. It was hot. I was sweating like I’ve never sweated before. Over the crushing din and noise, I took a deep breath and I said, “Today, Calgary is different than it was yesterday. It’s better. And it’s not because of me; it’s because of you.”

The Purple Revolution was never about me. It was about Calgarians willing to take a risk on a better future. Willing to take a risk on a nerdy shlumpy professor to help take us there. I needed to remind myself of that. 

Now feels like the right time for someone new to meet the challenges facing our city — someone with new perspectives, new ideas and new methods of doing things. We can take a risk with a fresh person like we did 11 years ago and continue to strive for a better Calgary.   

This city has 1.4 million people living here, people who love this city. Every day, there are acts of tremendous service and heroic community-building. We are strong.  

So, I’m off to new adventures — new ways, I hope, of being of service. Inshallah, as we Muslims say, I’ll have the chance to be part of the story that we are all writing. We won’t just be OK, we will be amazing. And we will do the work together.

Naheed Nenshi, BComm’93 (with distinction), was sworn in as Calgary’s 36th mayor in 2010, becoming Canada’s first Muslim mayor, and was re-elected in 2013 and 2017. Naheed has won several awards for his work, which includes the President’s Award from the Canadian Institute of Planners, the Humanitarian Award from the Canadian Psychological Association, and he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
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