Finding Our Way

Through our work, we have received hundreds of messages and calls from sport leaders across the country expressing their longing for a different way. This blog aims to shine a spotlight on the pain and suffering we witness when supporting sport organizations through difficult times and offers a few practical tips to create more time and space to allow for a more sustainable and meaningful future.

Acknowledging Our Entrenched Worldviews

We witness this time and again: old meets new; values clash; generations become polarized.

In the space between then and now, policies, structures, and mindsets are reviewed under a microscope. The term used to hold outdated systems accountable to today’s standards is called presentism. Today’s need to modernize often has us calling out those who pioneered, what they felt at the time, were best practices. Unless we recognize yesterday’s practices as partial and our best attempt at innovation at the time, we are often tempted to point fingers. This mindset can shame people into silence or give rise to violent communications and interactions.

We are living through such times.

To support our clients in their return to sport plans, we have designed a holistic approach that invites deep listening and curiosity as our guideposts. This allows us to get curious about what now might feel are ‘outdated’ practices. When working with clients on system-changing projects, we invite curiosity as our ally to better understand the risks related to changing and the risks related to maintaining status quo. In our experience, shifting mindsets are almost always made possible when we approach conversations from a place of values. When understanding people’s motivations, we can more easily empathize with their ‘reasons for being’ and frame our questions in a manner that opens up dialogue. When we frame questions more empathetically, trust levels inch up, people start listening generously, and hearts crack open. New realities are made possible when people stay open to having courageous conversations, the ones that require a quality of presence that inspires trust.

Standing Still to Move Forward

Buddhists have a way of simplifying life’s most important truths. Three of their greatest practices include deep listening, pausing to reflect, and meditation, which in turn encourages us to examine what is unfolding without attachment.

Our returning from this global pandemic must be about forging a better path … one that is illuminated by values and shared principles. The benefit of this forced pause is that we have more time and space to explore some of the ‘wicked problems’ that our global community is wrestling with. As we face our greatest fears, we can work together to find the right language… language that lessens the pull to polarize and from which solidarity to the common cause emerges. This can only happen from a place of authenticity which is sourced when we pause, journey within, and find a deeper truth.

When we work with leaders to break through complex problems, we invite them to name their desired outcomes. Beyond solving or making the problem go away, there is an underlining longing to reflect shared values and to serve a higher purpose. This requires a new mindset… a new heartset. With new language, comes new momentum to tackle some of the old problems that relied on quick wins and short-term solutions. The world’s most successful leaders are acknowledging that what got us here, will not necessarily get us there. The singular focus on strategy is not sustainable without pausing to invite the soul of the company to have voice.

We need both.

Speaking Truth

It is no longer sufficient to be content with the absence of harm. We as a community must muster the courage to come forward and to speak truth to power. As we continue to share our truth, we offer the following aspirations that have been ignited by the hundreds of voices who have reached out over the years to thank us for our contributions to sport. What this means in the foreseeable future is hard to predict but if we were to speak about a sport world that is inclusive, strategic, compassionate, and wise, here is what our wish list looks like:

  • Sport leaders reflect the people they serve. This would mean that Boards of Directors, Committees, management positions, and policy makers would reflect the characteristics of their membership. Much like we currently put hard numbers and targets to our podium aspirations, the same logic ought to apply to ensuring leadership reflects the people they serve.
  • An awakened approach to leadership. This requires discipline, presence, and a deep commitment to self-awareness. Awakened leaders breathe oxygen into their relationships, have soul-based conversations, fuel and ignite the inner potential of others, and serve the mission of the organization with deep compassion.
  • Conflict of interest is eliminated. But first it must be significantly reduced. One of the quickest ways to erode trust is to mismanage conflict. It is not enough to simply recuse oneself … we must do better. We still see and hear too many stories of paid executives or volunteer Directors making decisions that benefit themselves or their inner circle of family and friends, instead of acting in the organization’s best interests.
  • Manage by values. It has been a decade since we shared a refreshing new way of managing that leverages the values of an organization. True sustainability means we care about the planet, the people, and ensuring reasonable profit. We are heartened by the number of people that are managing by values and we see the impact it can have on the culture of their organization.
  • Review and renew current systems of governance. We are seeing the limitations of current systems that struggle to align around common threats. We have written about governance gremlins and outdated structures before and we are encouraged by the leadership of several NSOs and MSOs who are collaborating on systemic renewal projects. Our view is that the current system that places a heavy burden on volunteerism will be insufficient to meet new and growing expectations.
  • Sport as a global right. Currently we are seeing ancient and often outdated mindsets limit the principles of fairness and justice. Athletes are rising up collectively and demanding more voice and agency. Athletes are at the epicenter of the sport experience from playground to podium and it seems fitting to have them co-create a safe, healthy, inclusive and just experience.

We appreciate the ongoing notes and calls that show your appreciation for our work and that continue to inspire us to share ideas for a better way. As with many things, our thoughts are a mixture of personal expression, professional experience, and shared values to create dialogue within the Canadian sport system where we have been a contributor since 1992. We also appreciate other opinions and thoughts to advance our own partial thinking so please consider this an open invitation to continue the conversation at DBL@sportlaw.ca or SJI@sportlaw.ca.

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