Entrepreneur and sports advocate John Furlong was the morning keynote speaker at the Vancouver Regional Construction Association's Construction Leadership Forum, held on May 5 in Whistler, B.C.
Furlong's speech, "a vision that changed a nation," began by saying as he looked back on the Olympic Games and remembered the "gloom and doom" commentary as preparation began, he noted that today no-one is making these comments. This was in large part due to the construction industry building and completing world-class structures on time that remain a part of Vancouver to this day.
Good leadership, Furlong said, is difficult to define. "You can't sit at a desk, receive volumes of information, and know how to lead," he said.
Furlong discussed his early experience of leadership in terms of becoming the captain of the basketball team in his native Ireland a team where "you could get on with a note from your mother." He recalled being "ripped into" by the coach of the team after a narrow win. Furlong vowed at the time he would never be talked to in that way again, and doubled his effort. The next game he received the same dressing down, but realized that the coach wasn't criticizing his own performance but telling him to contribute to his teammates to build something together.
Leadership is an instinctual thing and is about example and "willing to be the one to stand up and take a risk."
Most of all, Furlong said, it's about belief, in yourself and the tasks you have to complete.
Looking at the Olympics, Furlong believed they were as well prepared as any other Winter Olympics, had overcome many challenges, and were ready to execute. But a call from Whistler about a tragic accident on the luge track threw his confidence.
"I was lost; didn't have a clue what to do," Furlong said. He was scared of not leading his team out of this sad circumstance, especially given the opening ceremonies were happening that night.
"It was the harshest day I have ever spent, bar none," he said. But two things were happening, he added. Inside of VANOC, the feeling was they had let the country down, and there was a need to get the luger's body laid to rest in his home country. Canada was winning medals and people were in a good mood, but inside VANOC the mood was glum.
But on the day they put the luger on the plane, police officers gathered of their own accord to escort the luger's body to the airport, and Furlong gathered his team together and explained to them that they had to pick up the pieces and do their best not only for Canada but so they can look back on the event without regret.
In order to be successful in any business of endeavor, you need a profound vision that pushes why you're doing what you're doing. The 2010 Winter Olympics had that, in that they wanted to instill a "Canadian spirit" in Canadians and give the world an idea of what Canada is about. The second is to have a core set of values to drive the vision.
Furlong said he and his people put an enormous burden on the construction industry. "People were talking about whether our venues would be built on time at the cost we promised, and from that we sent a message to the world."
The difference that made on the world stage was extraordinary, he said.
The economy took a serious downturn before the Olympics, but Furlong said if ordinary citizens were struggling through these conditions, so could the 2010 Winter Games. A lack of snow on Cypress was a worry, but there was little that could be done to change the situation. They didn't have a solution and they had six weeks to find one. They also had to find snow that was compatible with Cypress, and they did find some in Manning Park 100 km away. But they had to get permission to obtain the snow, and they figured that out as well. Eventually the snow was put on Cypress and Furlong appealed to dignitaries to show their support.
Eventually though, people working at Cypress reassured him that "you don't need to keep coming up here, we've got this covered," and Furlong left his people to exercise their skills independently.
"You have to have great people, but our values were what made us the story that we became," Furlong said.
Furlong added while people in British Columbia cared about venues, those in the rest of Canada cared more about Canadians winning medals, and that was the goal of the organization as well.
The Canadian gold medal win in ice hockey against the U.S. team was where it all came together, he said. Everyone could lay claim to the event that had taken place, and Furlong stressed that everyone needs to "have a belief to push itself forward."