4 Things My Wife has Learned about Leadership at the PanAm Games

In case you didn’t know it, the Pan Am games are in full swing now in Toronto. I know this very well because my wife, Karen, is a volunteer at the Games.  As I’ve watched her come and go from her commitments these past two weeks I’ve learned a lot, not only about her, but as well about the lessons that volunteering can provide to leaders.


panam gamesIt is often said that great leaders not only lead but they serve as well. The service leadership concept is based on the philosophy of “servant leadership,” a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf to define a leader who is servant first.


From Wikipedia “…the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”


Those who volunteer and serve in any capacity understand that the experience contributes to our lives (and of course many others) at so many levels.


This has been a real eye-opener for Karen but I look at what she comes home with and think about how this experience (or any like it) can help all leaders.


Leadership lessons Karen has learned from volunteering at the Toronto2015 PanAm Games”


  1. Managing people at any level is extremely difficult. Karen is about three levels from the one person who manages her whole site. She has one direct manager and 3 people below her who in turn manage about 15 people each.  It’s huge.  This facility alone has 600 volunteers. In just the first two weeks of her 4 week commitment she has seen it all: from bright and energetic people day in and day out to others who don’t even show up for a day or two.  Complainers to problem solvers.  The process and structure is easy.  It’s the people that make it so difficult.  60,000 people applied to volunteer at these Games for only 23,000 positions.  Yes, Toronto is a large metropolis but that’s a lot of people willing to give their time and effort to a cause.  But are they going to get it right every time?  No way.  Is everyone on the team there for the right reasons?  Are they all willing to pull their weight for the cause?  At an event like this, or our own organization’s, it’s the people who will provide us with the biggest challenges.
  1. Watching and learning is the best line to gaining experience. Leadership requires a very fine touch when it comes to dealing with the team and Karen has been able to see great leadership and terrible leadership in action. You see it first hand, think about how you would have approached it and stored the learning in the vault.
  1. Agility is a critical skill for leaders. I am amazed to hear that with all the layers of management these folks have set up, they are able to adjust the plan on the fly. Each day, it seems, they are looking at what went right and what went wrong, changing the plan and communicating it to the next team coming in the next shift.
  1. Saying thank-you goes a long way. OK, get this… every volunteer, every off shift, gets a small gift of thanks.  A pin, funky plastic sunglasses, a trinket of some kind. Small, inexpensive but incredibly powerful.  And all the managers at Karen’s level on up have been trained to visit each and every team member to check in, say thanks and be sure they are alright.  Leaders at all levels need to learn from this. Get down into the trenches and show our appreciation.  Karen reminds me that this simple act makes everyone feel so important.

Karen is exhausted after some very long 12 hour shifts. But this has been an amazing experience for her. She has met some very nice people all with the common idea that serving is important.  She is not moving into or going back to a senior leadership position after these Games but her take-ways are just as important as those who are in a leadership position.


For those leaders and future leaders working the games, I think they will go away with some great take-ways about great leadership.


And for all the rest of us, where are we serving?  Where are we experience the thrill of giving back and the upside of learning about leadership firsthand?



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