Sometimes leading means leaving.
It may feel counter-intuitive but read on if you are curious about where I'm going with this blog.
It's sad for those of us who have served in a sector we all care so deeply about, to see leaders become entrenched and defensive when what is needed is to be open, humble, and courageous. As a 30+ year veteran serving in sport, with 5 Olympic experiences and a baker's dozen more of other national and international games behind me, I am also a student of sport ... bringing informed and evidence-based learning on topics ranging from risk management to an evolutionary form of leadership, management by values and grief and loss literacy. What I have noticed is that for the most part, sport hasn't been open to innovative, humanistic, and values-driven approaches until more recently. Why would we? We fail to reward more than money and medals and until we elevate our consciousness to see beyond wins and championships, sport will stay stuck.
And people will suffer.
Sport is in transition. So is most of the world. Outdated practices that rewarded the privileged, are being tested against humanistic virtues. I've said it before ... leadership needs to reflect the people we are here to serve. And sport, as a diverse ecosystem on the field of play, needs diverse leadership to lead us through this uncomfortable, yet much-needed transition.
What got us here will not get us to where we want to go next.
I have the privilege of supporting sport leaders, coaches and athletes ... the ones who have joined us in the Sport Leaders Retreats to face real issues with humility ... the ones who have signalled a new way to measure success by measuring their culture ... the ones who are willing to confront their inner demons bravely... the ones who have chosen to lead by leaving … and the ones who are choosing to stay – facing such overwhelming uncertainty with an open mind and heart. Choosing to stay in sport means accepting that for the most part, it’s going to be a bumpy ride for the foreseeable future. The old way of leading rewarded the stoic, the strong, the combative, the charismatic, the 'we'll go down with the ship'. The new form of leadership needs to reward the collaborative, the humble, the authentic, the generous listener, and the ones who are prepared to leave when they no longer have the trust of those they are here to serve.
Sometimes leaving, is leading.
And by leaving I don’t mean giving up … I mean giving into the reality that my time as a leader needs to come to an end. At some point, everything ends. The deep soul-searching that must guide our decisions includes assessing if we are still the right person for the job. I know I have chosen to leave when people still wanted me to stay. Sometimes I did so for other opportunities. Sometimes I left knowing in my heart that someone more skilled is what my team needed. Sometimes I chose to listen to the whispers of the future beckoning me to follow a different path. And sometimes I left because leaving was the right thing to do (according to my values and beliefs).
I’ve been writing about better ways of leading, coaching and competing for almost two decades. I feel I offer a somewhat unique perspective having served inside the sport system for nearly fifteen years with the second half of my career as an Integral Coach and strategic advisor through Sport Law. All of this has shaped and continues to inform my perspective on how to show up as a self-aware, healthy human.
About two decades ago, I read The Art of War by Sun Tzu. It might seem incongruent with what I was researching … how to elevate sport through shared values. However, the life lessons that are gleaned from this masterpiece I think might also support a way of thinking about the sport system and how we are currently approaching this battle. Of all the principles he espouses, the one that most resonates with me is “know yourself, know your enemy.” It’s hard to know what we are fighting for without really knowing what we stand for and the values that most matter to us.
One of my invitations is for us to pause and ask “what kind of sport system do we need to ensure a healthy and thriving environment for all participants?” He also advocated for “the best way to win is not to fight at all.” Are there better ways to resolve the conflict? Can we stay in a conversation? What are we really fighting for? Focusing on small battles distracts us from the real threat. I believe the real threat is the one posed by an outdated, privileged system that has needed a new way of being since the dawn of the 21st Century.
The real enemy is not the people inside the broken system (for the most part). Our tolerance of a broken system and our unwillingness to address systemic issues continue to distract us from a common enemy. If we stay open long enough to reflect on these life lessons, we might heed his most powerful teachings, which is “no one profits from prolonged warfare.”
My big question is “what are we really fighting for?” Here's what’s on my Hope List for Sport:
Hope 1: Make sport a right, not a privilege. If we truly believe in the power of sport to be a positive force for good, we must treat it as such. Alongside dignified health care, financial literacy, holistic education, food safety, and environmental stewardship, it is my opinion that healthy, human sport can transform communities.
Hope 2: Modernize the governance systems to foster greater accountability (promise-keeping), and system integration (alignment isn’t enough). Until we do, we will continue to be at the mercy of well-intentioned, but overburdened volunteers.
Hope 3: Invest in people by supporting their ongoing professional development needs. Other sectors have caught on to the importance of having a leadership coach but in sport, the art of coaching is, for the most part, focused on the field of play. Who’s supporting the leaders and the sport coaches when they need support?
Hope 4: Educate and empower the coach-athlete relationship to ensure humanistic and child development principles guide the interactions at all times. The vast majority of athletes are under the age of 18 and truth be shared, the sport sector is doing a miserable job of retaining kids in sport once they hit their teenage years. If sport was designed to be fun, fair, inclusive and rewarding, we’d keep the people in it, wouldn’t we? This means parents need to know, understand and support the True Sport Principles and become vocal advocates for healthy, human sport. No more silent bystanders, please.
Hope 5: Communicate hope-filled and stories of success beyond wins and losses. We need to celebrate the human experiences of failing to achieve stated goals and the life lessons gleaned from these experiences. We need to better understand the uplifting stories of friendship, giving back to our community, moral courage, and exemplar role modelling. We need to make it popular to do the right thing. To do so, we must measure a new bottom line of Money. Medals. Morals. People. Planet. Passion. When we expand our ways of celebrating success, we’ll incentivize more people to be better.
As always, I appreciate your notes letting me know the impact my writing is having on you as leaders. As I continue to share my voice more publicly through keynotes and presentations, I enjoy listening and learning from those of you who take the time to reach out. Please continue to connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This fight is going to take a village.