Soul and Strategy – Both required to propel organizations to new heights

This weekend I achieved a personal milestone in spending time with the compassionate and dedicated members of Synchro BC. We weren’t there to do strategic planning, risk management or communications, which have been the bread and butter stuff that I’ve focused on over the past decade. Instead, the gravitational force that brought me to Vancouver was the desire by this community to initiate a conversation on what matters most to them. As someone who helped to spark the True Sport Movement back in 2001 in response to the ethical issues that were poised to destroy the institution of sport, the invitation to connect around management by values and the True Sport Principles proved to be both exciting and daunting. Exciting because finally an organization was ready to fully immerse themselves in a philosophy of management that I believe wholeheartedly is what sport needs to combat the “black swan” events and “wicked problems” that permeate our world these days. And daunting, because I was trying to convey a lifetime of work in a series of five separate workshops. How was I going to find the words to fully express what I had come to learn about a more humanistic approach to leading in the 21st Century? How would I convey the simple truth that can emerge when people choose to express, live and manage by values?

The session opened with a conversation among coaches and officials. The sport of synchronized swimming attracts lifelong, passionate volunteers and the 25 participants present at the session astonishingly had over 500 years of combined synchro experience. What brings people together and, moreover, what keeps them connected in this manner? The simple truth is community. The conversation allowed for an affirmation of personal values being expressed through their volunteer commitments.  It was a humbling experience for me to witness as I encouraged the women in the room to fully express themselves by sharing their stories.

The next day opened with a plenary session where I was invited to share my thoughts about the future of sport, some of the challenges I had witnessed, and my higher aspirations that I hoped they might live up to. The underlying thread that connected each conversation was coming back to our individual and collective ‘why’. I could feel people respond, and beyond the heads nodding I could feel the emotional connection that was yearning for more intentional use of values. In my opening address, I shared poet David Whyte’s poem on Working Together. The poem, written for Boeing to inaugurate the launch of the new 737 series, spoke about how the invisible and visible form a sort of communion and in their joining, unleashes the mystery of human potential. And isn’t that what a ‘real conversation’ can do? It can make visible the shared values that bring us together, and keep us together. And, in the absence of us taking the time to identify, define, communicate, and evaluate the extent to which we live these values, we are merely living on borrowed time - likely hoping that the experience will be ‘good enough’ for our kids, so that we can turn our attention to something more important once our time is done.

But then magic happened.

I spent time with a group of athletes ranging in age from 7 to 19 who were all eagerly participating in a conversation around why they love sport. How does each athlete live the principles of Go For It; Respect Others; Play Fair; Stay Healthy; Have Fun; Include Everyone; and Give Back? The stories they shared … the courage they showed … the tears that were shed … the bonds that were forged … reminded me as a steward of sport of the partial conversation we are currently having writ large. And while our focus on strategy and risk and performance and results has created the space for our current success on the world stage, I suggest that this energy is partial and is not the kind of energy required to fully meet and address the challenges that await us. Scandals, corruption, systemic cheating, conflicts, nepotism, fraud, and exclusionary practices are still alive in the sport system we have fought so hard to preserve. Surrounded by the 200 or so girls and women at the session, I was invited, nay compelled to share what I believe is a tipping point for Canadian Sport. If we want fair and ethical sport, we not only need to lead by example, we need to set the course for our collective higher purpose. The world needs more True Sport in it. And in order for True Sport to thrive, leaders need to manage by a set of values that will propel them forward.

I then connected with a group of a small group of volunteer directors who wanted to learn more about the Management by Values philosophy. Within the hour, we discussed the limiting forces at play and recognized that what got us ‘here’ may not get us ‘there’. This openness to a better way of managing is the kind of mindset that psychologist Carol Dweck speaks of as a “growth mindset”. A growth mindset allows for learning to flourish with the muscles of curiousity, conviction and openness as essential ingredients to nourish this possibility. The gentle nudge was … if not now, then when … if not you, then who? I am curious to see how many are inspired to add their voices to the nearly 4000 communities who have actively endorsed the True Sport Movement (www.truesport.ca).

My last session was with the parents and it was a refreshing experience to be surrounded by dedicated and compassionate mothers who were taking time out of their weekend to learn how to serve as technical support during synchro events. For me, the conversation reminded all of us of the importance of speaking up and advocating for the quality sport experience our sons and daughters deserve. That is what True Sport is about. In its simplest form, it is merely a statement of seven principles that articulate what Canadians said they wanted to see lived in the sport experience. At its best, these Principles serve as a driving force to shape and nurture a healthy, rewarding and enriching learning environment for children, youth and adults to contribute, participate and grow.

My parting words came in the closing ceremony were I was invited to weave a thread that permeated throughout the sessions, providing an opportunity to share what I had witnessed. The level of engagement after a long day surprised me. I had not expected that athletes and adults would once again fill the seats. I was most taken by an 11 year old wunderkind who bravely shared her voice with the assembly after I had asked them what they are prepared to do differently on Monday.  “I just want everyone to have fun, make sure everyone feels like they matter, and encourage each other. I am going to do that on Monday. I am going to cheer everyone on!”

It’s not often we get to work on something, bring it to life, step away, continue to champion it, and then witness its growth. As one of the early contributors to True Sport I am deeply proud of the impact it has had over the 17 years. And I am hopeful of its continued expansion as other leaders begin to ask themselves the same questions that our Synchro BC community has been sitting with. My hope for sport remains unfazed. I believe that there is a seismic shift in mindset underway that will make room for values driven sport. And once this is cemented, the full potential of sport will be realized in Canada, and on the world stage.

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