Thoughts on Leadership

Published June 26, 2012

In December 2011, I was appointed a True Sport Fellow by the True Sport Foundation. The Foundation is committed to ensuring that sport makes a positive contribution to Canadian society, to our athletes, and to the physical and moral development of Canada’s youth.

Designed to provide thought leaders in sport with an opportunity to reflect, write, and share ideas related to an area of interest, the Fellowship is a unique opportunity for me to do just that. When I was completing my Master’s in Sport Management a few years back, I spent quite a bit of time reviewing research related to different forms of leadership and the characteristics associated with great leaders. Over the next several months I’ll be putting pen to paper, hosting coffee chats with sport leaders, blogging on the topic, and hitting the books. For this initial blogpost on the topic, I thought I would begin to share some ideas related to leadership in sport and our collective role in elevating sport as a public asset.

Embracing diversity

Have you met the 30% challenge? If you’re like most sport leaders, you’re wondering what this means. Also existing in gender equity literature, the 30% benchmark is the desired representative percentage of visible minorities in leadership positions. Research conducted by the Sprott School of Business (at Carleton University in Ottawa) on the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) investigated how diverse leadership was for not-for-profits in the GTA. The results were fairly sobering and some of the highlights of the research included:

  • Of the 4,254 nonprofit board positions examined, 15.6% are held by visible minorities
  • Sub-groups of visible minorities are also under-represented: those of Korean descent have the lowest levels of representation in our sample (0.33%), while Blacks (3.13%) and South Asians (3.41%) have the highest
  • Of the more than 420 organizations that responded to the surveys, 77.9% have at least one visible minority on their board
  • Approximately 44% of nonprofits report having a formal working definition of diversity, and of these, 83.6% include ethnicity, race and colour, 49.4% include country of origin, and 36.3% include immigrant and refugee status in their definition
  • The research shows that once a nonprofit board reaches critical mass of 30%+ visible minorities, there will be an increase in the benefits of diversity experienced by the organization

One case of ‘positive deviance’ was one of our very own sport organizations, Boxing Ontario, which was cited in the research study as exceeding the 30% goal. Boxing Ontario is the governing body of amateur boxing in Ontario and has a board of 12 directors; half of which are visible minorities. The composition of the board means it serves not as an example of the current norm, but what could soon be the norm. To read more about this research click here.

To download a copy of the 10 tips for diverse boards, click here.

I encourage sport leaders to ask themselves and others the following questions:

  • Are decision-makers reflective of the cultural diversity of our members?
  • When we recruit new people to positions of power, do we look for people who bring different experiences, knowledge, and ideas to the current collective?
  • Have we defined what diversity means to us?

Directing , governing or stewarding?

The new Federal NFP Act (and the upcoming Provincial NFP Acts in Ontario and BC) will require all organizations to file new articles of incorporation and revised bylaws that comply with the new law. I’ve been considering what additional opportunities for boards might arise from this process. Certainly, boards can use this opportunity to have crucial conversations about board composition and defining what diversity means to them. This is also a perfect time for boards to more deliberately attempt to increase diversity in their ranks through a nomination system. For instance, boards can consider how diversity can be embedded within their nominating committees, job descriptions for board members, terms of reference for committees, and strategies for recruiting new board members.

The new NFP Acts also permit a board to think more strategically about the governance approach they believe their organization needs to fully meet its potential. A recent conversation with a CEO of a national sport organization had me thinking about the language we use to define our approach to governance. It struck me that our choice of language may be causing many of the governance problems I hear from both volunteers and staff. Consider that we have Board of Directors whose primary purpose is to provide oversight to the staff persons who are responsible for operations. We also have Directors as staff who are responsible for delivering on the ends that have been approved by the board. While most NSOs have moved towards a policy board, there are still a number of them that are operating under an operational board governance model. Having a dialogue to determine the best governance model for your organization is critically important as you embark on your governance review.

I know of only one NSO that has purposely chosen to use the term Board of Governors to ensure that there is no confusion between the role of the board and that of staff. In this model, the governors are there to govern the work of the organization while the staff is there to direct, manage, and coordinate the work required to fulfill the organization’s mission. Finally, and this might be an idea whose time has not yet come, some of my research has uncovered a term that I find intriguing … Board of Stewards. The word stewardship means to be ‘in service of other’. Other sectors have chosen to adopt the words ‘Board of Stewards’ to indicate their commitment to sustainable, ethical, and human-centric practices. This philosophy may be described as managing to the “triple bottom line” of profit, people, and planet. If your organization is to live up to its full potential and meet the demands of the 21st century, then re-examining your current governance model and ensuring that your organization’s choices are reflective of today’s needs are important considerations.

Final thoughts

Over the past few months, I’ve been having conversations with sport leaders on a variety of governance related matters and I’d like to share some patterns I see emerging.

  • One of my clients has recently struck a Task Force to define what diversity means to them. Increasing diversity at all levels of the organization – from recruiting new members to expanding diverse people in decision-making position – is a key strategic direction moving forward for this progressive organization.
  • A few clients have come to me to share their growing frustrations with the widening gap they see occurring between staff and boards. It’s too soon to tell, but I wonder if all this talk about governance is having volunteers running for the hills. Let us be clear … sport needs volunteers to survive. With over 80% of our capacity coming from volunteers, we need to ensure that we continue to recruit and retain the best possible people – from staff to volunteers – to continue to strengthen the sport system. If you’re a staff member, you may want to ask yourself when was the last time you’ve had a crucial conversation with your President about your organization’s approach to governance. Do you have a clear understanding of reporting structures, roles, and responsibilities? Are the lines of communications as optimal as they could  be? Is your committee structured the way it needs to be in light of your strategic plan and future vision?
  • The ability to manage change is a critical skill required of today’s sport leaders. To what extent have you thought about your approach to managing change … for staff, for your volunteers, and for yourself?
  • Finally, with more people retiring and fewer people coming to our sector, we will need to think strategically about our recruitment and retention strategy. People want to be valued for the work they do and feel that the work they do is valuable. That seems simple. Making this happen is less so.

I always like to hear from you. Drop me a line at if you have any comments about the above.

Recent Posts

Trespass and Restricting Access to Facilities and Events

My Passion for Sport Fueled my Passion for Sport Law

The Cost of Doing Good: Athlete Activists Pay the Price

Here’s Hoping for Healthy, Human Sport in 2024

Grief, Living Losses, and Shattered Dreams: Why doing the grief work will help sport heal


Sign up to our newsletter.
Newsletter signup
Let's resolve your challenges and realize your vision