From Sport To Leadership - Paula Burns
This is part 2 of a series featuring local women leaders sharing their experience with sport, and how the skills learned through sport and active recreation impact their professional roles and life.
Paula Burns, PhD, MBA Lethbridge College President and CEO
by Paula Burns
As a child, I was a sports enthusiast. Growing up in small-town Nova Scotia, sports weren’t about competition, but were just something we did. It was our social time. It was our pastime. It was our chance to connect with the other children from our neighbourhood and beyond.
I just loved the chance to get out and play, especially if it was outdoors. I played second base and catcher for a boys’ baseball team since our town didn’t have a girls’ team. In high school, I was part of a team that doubled as both a field hockey and soccer team, depending on which sport our opponents played. I took a spin at figure skating, up until I realized I wasn’t going to be great at it. I even took a turn at women’s pickup hockey, playing goalie since I was the one who fit the hand-me-down pads.
The common thread through these experiences was the lack of competitiveness. To me, it was never about winning. I participated because it felt good. It felt good to build friendships with my teammates. And it felt really good to get outside and push myself physically. It was only later in my life where I was able to draw the line between physical health and mental health and the effect that being active had on my success in other parts of my life. But at that time, I just knew I felt good when I was active, so I stayed active as much as I could.
The one sport where competition did matter to me was curling. I started curling when I was 12 and knew I had found my niche. I curled competitively in both the junior and high school ranks in Nova Scotia, and continued into my college years with the Fanshawe College Falcons in London, Ont. I played third on the mixed team – where we won an Ontario conference championship and earned a national bronze medal.
Looking back on it now, I realize many of the seeds of the future leadership roles I would pursue were planted during those long hours on the rink. When I would skip, I had to think in a strategic leadership mindset, looking beyond the current shot to the shots that will need to be made later in the end. Curling even provided me with an opportunity to make the toughest decision a leader has to make, as the first time I fired someone was a member of our team. That also taught me a valuable lesson in needing the right mix of people, skills, and personalities to make a team (or organization) run at its highest level.
As I have shifted careers, and moved provinces, it has always been important to me to stay active. I kept curling as long as I could until my job responsibilities made it impossible to commit to the same night every week (although, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed me to return to curling for the first time in more than a decade!) When I moved to Edmonton in 2008, I decided it was time for a new outlet, so I began running. My love of the outdoors pushed me to keep going even through the bitter winters. I kept going until I felt comfortable entering my first 10 kilometre race, and later, my first half marathon.
I eventually entered a triathlon that changed my life. After fighting through the opening swim, I jumped on my bike and began passing people, which felt pretty great. From that day on, cycling replaced running as my go-to physical outlet and has become a passion of mine. No matter how busy my life is, I will always find time to hop on my bike. I enjoy both road cycling, and mountain biking and I have had the opportunity to enter races on both the east coast and west coast. I find satisfaction in pushing myself to achieve new personal goals.
Because, here’s the thing: I have never viewed cycling as a competitive endeavour. It is a chance to clear my mind, work on my fitness and balance my mental health. Cycling hasn’t made me a better cyclist – it’s made me a better leader.
On a mountain bike, you need to focus your mind on the task at hand or you can literally be risking your life. On a road bike, there are times where you can just cruise and let your mind wander. Both of these are important outlets to balancing the stresses of life and giving yourself a different perspective.
Mental health is often referred to as a black-or-white issue, but it’s far from it. Mental health is a continuum and every day presents new challenges and triumphs that can move you on that continuum. Sport has always been my opportunity to balance myself on that scale. When I feel strong physically, I feel stronger mentally and that manifests itself in all areas of my life. I am a better leader for Lethbridge College when I achieve that balance. I am a better mom, partner, and friend when I feel well physically and mentally. It really affects everything I do.
My experiences have shown me first-hand how important sports are to life, and I am fortunate to be in a role now where I can support others in their endeavours. At Lethbridge College, cheering on our Kodiaks is one of my favourite parts of my job. Our Kodiaks student-athletes continually emerge as student leaders. They learn discipline both on and off the field of play, and they learn important life and time management skills that will stay with them long past their years at the college.
And, the Kodiaks bring a vibrant culture to our campus community, which is so important. Our community supports the Kodiaks and it makes our students and employees alike want to be a part of that culture. I look forward to seeing how sports will help shape the lives of these young future leaders.
I encourage everyone to try something new and carve out time to follow your passions. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t learned all those lessons along the way.
The Lethbridge Sport Council extends a big THANK YOU to Paula for sharing her experience with us. We look forward to bringing you more stories from local female leaders in our community over the coming weeks.
Read Part 1 of this series - Kara Hagen
Posted December 15, 2020