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Volume 23 No. 23
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Forum: Key lessons from speakers, sessions at Thought Leaders

About 175 people descended on Pelican Hills resort in Newport Beach, Calif., for our Thought Leaders Retreat this month, which offered a mix of speakers from outside sports, group problem solving, outdoor social activities and networking. The event is off the record, but many people ask me to share the themes and topics, as they offer a glimpse into some of the issues that many of us grapple with on a daily basis. Here are some of my takeaways:

New York Times bestselling author Josh Linkner kicked things off and offered his five mindsets of innovative leaders. He discussed the perils of companies that become intoxicated with their own success and fail to adapt and innovate. He stressed problem solving, defying traditions, breaking rules and getting back up from failure. He also placed a big emphasis on ideation — ideas are contagious, and if you get a group to think on an idea, it becomes six ideas.

A session on organizational performance and leadership saw two veteran HR specialists talk about giving employees inspiration while drilling down into work expectations of the millennial generation. One comment struck a number of attendees when a speaker praised millennials for their approach: “They will save the world and they will push companies. They are also the most organized generation that we’ve ever seen.” This is a generation with a “live at work” mindset in that their expectations for work are the same as at home — good food, support, comfort and even the ability to be with their pets. Those comments drew spirited debate among a group I chatted with later, with one adding, “Why is it we are adapting to them rather than them learning from us?” This discussion also stressed the traits of a good leader as empathy and patience, and raised debate on whether empathy can be learned and if you can even teach emotional intelligence.

The Kaleidoscope Group CEO Doug Harris offered a well-received address that discussed leaders behaving in a consciously inclusive way and outlined how to think, believe and demonstrate inclusive behavior in all situations. His takeaways: Demonstrate empathy, communicate authentically, embrace differences, manage privilege and act courageously.

Over the years, a speaker that has repeatedly been recommended to us is UNICEF CEO Caryl Stern, and this year we were finally able to fit in her schedule. She offered a moving account of her travels around the world, the hardships and heartbreak she’s witnessed, and encouraged attendees to focus on helping children in need.

Sebastian Coe still looks like he could run a record time, and he flew from England to talk about his career as a competitive athlete, politician and leader who brought the 2012 Summer Games to London. He talked about the importance of communication and transparent decision-making by sports organizations, and how the real focus for any Olympic Games organization should be on the local city and delivering a successful and lasting legacy for the host community. He also had thoughtful points of view on the political issues surrounding the 1980 Moscow Games and the nexus between sports and politics. 

Another athlete and leader who showcased his passion and perspective was Paul Rabil, who talked about the challenges of getting his Premier Lacrosse League up and running in eight months. He offered an insightful mix on how leagues and athletes can maximize traditional and social media to grow a fan base. He was refreshingly honest in the heavy lift around the efforts of starting a new league, and while smiling, there was a touch of weariness when he acknowledged, “It’s just challenging every day.”

Finally, there were two full group discussions. There was a focus on day-to-day drivers of sports business, from the viability and measurement of the various OTT platforms to the future economic models and rights fees for properties, to concerns about the future ticket model and the eventual unbundling of the season ticket, an economic bedrock to sports. There was also an eye on the macro issues, from the overall growth of sports to the disrupters in the business and new technologies affecting every aspect of the food chain — and the clear belief that if you fight technology and innovation, you will lose. There was also the concern about the overwhelming demand on consumers’ two most scarce and precious resources — time and money — and how that will affect the sports economy. But overall, there was a bullish feeling about the industry, especially among the entrepreneurs who stated there has never been a better time or more opportunity to be in sports.   

Plenty of ideas and points of view that make you think, and it’s always among the most enlightening and enjoyable two days we produce all year.


First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 30:00 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at