Each February I look forward to the opportunity to volunteer at the annual state-wide Special Olympics Winter Games. This year I was particularly looking forward to volunteering because of all of the Leadership Institute staff and students attending. Also, having the inside scoop with the planning of the 2015 Winter Games I knew that there would be more athletes attending than any other year!
This year I volunteered at Strive, which is an indoor (jackpot!) program designed to help assess athlete ability and also promote healthy lifestyles. Selfishly, I enjoyed volunteering with Strive because of all of the one on one interaction I got with each athlete as I went around to each assessment station. Some of the athletes (and I) struggled through the plank holds and squats while others approached each station with confidence and skill. We laughed, we broke a sweat, and we were always “brave in the attempt”. I particularly enjoyed reconnecting with a few athletes that I worked with last year as well.
Each time I reflect about a SOMI experience I struggle to put into words the energy and excitement at each event. If you’ve ever volunteered before you know that the athletes always inspire us through their actions, words and attitudes. Special Olympics is such a judgment free zone. People are not focused on deadlines or projects. At Special Olympics people are always priority number one and for this reason each person there feels important and respected. There are very few other times when someone feels as safe or as included as when someone is at a SOMI event.
This type of inclusion is often attempted but never duplicated in the business world. The emphasis of “we” instead of “me” represents a lesson of exemplary leadership. I don’t think there is a better example of “enable others to act” than a state-wide SOMI event. Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge explain that exemplary leaders enable others to act by building partnerships and sharing power.
When Eunice Kennedy Shriver began the games in 1968, she developed an opportunity for athletes to feel empowered through sports. Years later, the Special Olympics organization resulted in enabling thousands of others- athletes, coaches, volunteers, staff. Not only did she create an exceptional legacy, Eunice enabled others to expand and enrich communities. She designed opportunities for volunteers to help athletes reach their potential, all the while athletes inspired volunteers to be better versions of themselves as well.
Outside of Special Olympics state-wide events, when can I recreate that feeling of inclusion and acceptance? How can we keep the feeling of “less me, more we” alive?
Step one is bringing more people into the Special Olympics community. This year I was finally able to convince my very good friend from GV grad school days, Suzy, to join us volunteering. As predicted, Suzy had the time of her life at Winter Games. She said “I’m hooked, count me in for Summer Games”. Duh. Enabling others to act does not always require intensive coaching, sometimes it just means connecting the right people with the right resources and watching them thrive.
Keeping the SOMI spirit alive requires creating opportunities for others to be at their best. The more that we connect others with meaningful service opportunities, the more everyone wins. Whenever I volunteer with SOMI I am reminded of the Gandhi quote “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.
The honest truth is that during the rest of the month of February I had a hard time keeping the spirit of Winter Games alive. During the shortest month of the year I felt absolutely overwhelmed with work events, presentations, teaching a course, serving as a impromptu therapist for college students- and oh yeah, planning a wedding. At this point in my professional career I have a pretty good understanding that task oriented projects take much more of my energy than relationship oriented projects. By keeping experiences (such as SOMI) alive in my work I know that I can be a better leader, not to mention a better person to be around.