From Sport to Leadership - Chris Witkowski
This is part 3 of a series featuring local leaders sharing their experience with sport, and how the skills learned through sport and active recreation impact their professional roles and life.
My introduction to sports was as a dreamer in my formative years in the manufacturing town of Naugatuck, Connecticut in the 1980s. I desperately wanted to play goalie for the Hartford Whalers, score a basket alongside Larry Bird, or hit a world series homerun for the New York Mets. But here’s the thing…I couldn’t ice skate; my career youth basketball stats were two points and one rebound; and God help me if I had to hit a baseball. Consequently, I had to adjust my ambitions and look elsewhere for athletic satisfaction…life lesson #1.
My true introduction to sport participation came in Grade 9. One of the teachers walked up to me at my locker and said, “I’ve seen you in the hallway and I think you’d be a great fit to my team. How’d you like to join cross country?” Stunned, I blurted out, “Sure!” Then I went home and asked my Dad what cross country was. When he said, “running in the woods”, I thought, “Ok, I can do that.” From that point on, my life was forever changed. The training, discipline and visioning exercises required to compete in running has shaped the person I’ve come to be. In high school, running gave me confidence. It introduced me to other endurance sports like hiking, cycling, swimming, and the work ethic it takes to even partially succeed at any of them. It taught me how to deal with success and, conversely, how to work through failure.It made me learn when to push through pain and when to ease up. It turned a skinny, shy, awkward kid into a…well, still skinny, shy, awkward kid…but one that learned how to push his limits and not to fear new endeavors.
At one of my races, my uncle said to me, “Chris, you need to run through the finish line, not to it. Envision a point beyond the finish and charge to that spot.” Years later, I still take a visioning approach to every major work project or life decision by envisioning a point beyond the finish. When I chaired the Board of Directors for the 2020/21 Alberta Summer Games, I encouraged all the portfolio directors to envision a moment beyond the end of the Games and ask themselves, “What do I hope to achieve through these Games?” (In case you’re wondering, NOBODY said, “I envision a global pandemic!”). By Grade 12 I became captain of the high school cross country and track teams, which introduced me to my first stints in a leadership role.
Now, to be clear, I was not an all-star runner. I was never going to challenge for a win. Mid-pack…er, drafting…was my specialty. So I remember clearly the day the coach announced to the track team that I was going to be captain. My teammate said to me, “Why you? You’re not even a good runner.” That really bothered me (and still now, I suppose, because I remember it 30 years later!). I thought, “Why did Coach pick me? What does he see in me? What can I do for the team if I’m not winning races?” Well, I found out through the course of the season that winning didn’t make me a leader. Instead, it came down to pushing the other athletes in practice; putting in the effort on the nice days as well as those cold, wet, miserable spring afternoons; mixing levity with solemnity; setting up for meets; and encouraging every teammate on race day.
In essence, leadership is often about showing up, which is an attribute I’ve carried with me through my career, volunteer activities, and family life. In my early twenties, I finally pursued that goalie dream. Ice rinks weren’t a common element in Naugatuck, so I drove 75 minutes one way every Sunday night to play in a structured league in an open-air rink.
The first time I took the ice, I didn’t even know how to skate backwards, but I just figured what better time to learn than in the face of pressure?!? In that initial outing, I gave up double digit goals – in the first period – but, in a few years, I backstopped a shutout in the championship game. Over those years, playing goalie taught me to be patient, slow my thinking in the midst of chaos, and to never panic. Those are traits I use every day, whether working with colleagues, volunteers, customers, or family. Often, it comes down to slowing the moment, never panicking, and making the best decision based on what’s in front of me.
In 2013 I ran the New York City Marathon. It was a race that intrigued me since I was a kid, when I would stare at the race map hanging in my uncle’s home office. Like any marathon, I trained for months and envisioned that moment of running through the finish line. Two months before the start, I got injured and barely made it to the start line. I had to start walking at mile 9 of 26 and felt devastated that my dream was falling apart. I was dejected and hurt but I persevered while taking in the sights of Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Manhattan. I listened to strangers cheer me on and relished running (ok, walking) on the closed streets in one of the world’s greatest cities. After five hours, I crossed the finish line in 39,329th place out of 53,000+ runners. There’s no prize money for that. It was one of the worst athletic days I ever had, yet one of the best days of my life. I found success in failure. That’s a reminder I have to give myself quite often since life rarely goes as planned.
Those experiences have been great lessons for me and have made me come to several realizations in adulthood: new opportunities don’t scare me, so many life lessons come through sport, and I’m never going to make a living off my athletic prowess. Given that last fact, the last twelve years of my career have been dedicated to municipal government, with stints in land surveying and civil engineering before that.
All those sports experiences have helped me learn how to take a long term approach to my career, persevere through the tough moments, know when to push my boundaries, understand the influence I can have amongst those in my inner circle, find the balance between dream and reality, and handle the pressures that come with inquiries and critique from municipal leaders and residents. Perhaps, best of all, while sports shaped my career, my career has also uncovered a new passion for me in the sporting world - event management and administration.
Largely through my job, I have been extremely fortunate to sit on sport boards, coach my kids’ basketball teams and take on leadership roles in the Lethbridge stages of the 2014 & 2016 Tour of Alberta pro cycling race and 2020/21 Alberta Summer Games (ASG) Society. Similar to the physical aspects of sports, organizing large scale events have taught me that training and practice lead to success. Through these endeavors, I’ve learned how to quickly process information and make informed decisions, collaborate with stakeholders, inspire teams, make mistakes and recover, be confident while also being humble, and stand in the background while others shine. Leadership doesn’t have to come from standing on the podium.
These roles taught me more than anything else that leadership is often about exposing your vulnerabilities and understanding your strengths and weaknesses. I’m not a slick individual. I won’t knock your socks off the first time we meet. But give me time and you’ll see my strengths. I joked with the ASG team that I’m like a rash; you won’t really notice me at first but, over time, I’ll grow on you and you’ll be forced to pay attention! That’s who I am and I’m happy about it. I don’t need to light the world on fire. I’d rather put in the work and dedication to be a positive influence to those around me. Sports taught me that.
Perhaps comparing oneself to a rash is not the standard recipe for success, but sports have made me comfortable with who I am. I’ve taken my lumps in the athletic world, made mistakes at work, been passed over for promotions, and questioned some of my decisions as a parent. But I’ve also conquered some athletic feats that most people won’t even try, have a network of respected peers at work, and have managed to not lose or ruin my kids (yet). And somebody thought enough of my skills to ask me to write this story, so I’m doing something right.
For all of the above, I have sports to thank for a good chunk of it. I will always look for those new opportunities that push me further, both inside of sport and out. When life gets hard, I know I can burn off steam on a run or pedal away my frustrations on the bike. There is a yet-to-be discovered event waiting for me, a new sport leadership role to take on, career goals to achieve, and still lots to learn in life. I’m confident that sports will be at the center of it all. And maybe – just maybe – a reader or two of this story will be inspired to try something new, even if they have to finish in 39,329th place.
To see all the Sport For Leadership stories, please check out the e-magazine below. New stories will be added each week in March.
Posted March 22, 2022