Johann Olav Koss believes in the power of play. After sweeping three golds in speed skating at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games in front of a rapturous Norwegian home crowd, he used his Olympic moment to give away the prize money from his 1,500-metre win to Olympic Aid, a fundraising organization created by the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing committee. Then he challenged other athletes and the public to do the same, growing his seed money into $18-million.
As Olympic Aid's lead athlete ambassador, Mr. Koss had been inspired by a trip to Eritrea, where he watched kids use tin cans and rolled up shirts to play soccer. Though he was initially criticized in Norway for sending soccer balls to a war-torn country, Eritrea embraced him. Mr. Koss went on to turn Olympic Aid into Right to Play International - it's new name, by 2003 - an international humanitarian organization that uses sport as a tool for development, peace and health.
The 41-year-old president and CEO runs Right to Play with 50 employees from its headquarters in Toronto plus 450 staff in 29 countries around the globe, including such dangerous and unstable countries as Sudan, Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda and the Palestinian Territories. One key to Right to Play's acceptance in those countries is a collaborative approach that works with communities from the get-go.
Olympic athlete on his global efforts
But with an additional 15,000 volunteers and 700,000 kids participating in a program every week, it's a big management learning curve for an athlete who trained as a medical doctor with no background in finance or administration.
"I had a fantastic opportunity in 2004 to go to the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and do an executive MBA," he said. "I got 13 months of extensive learning, from strategy to marketing, from board issues to leadership. It gave me a much greater understanding of the tools we can use to enhance the business."
One of the biggest challenges for Mr. Koss in the last 18 months has been money, since many companies reduced their financial support. That meant tough choices, such as deciding where to continue working and where to end activities. Then the Vancouver 2010 Olympic committee excluded Right to Play from the Games in any official capacity.
"We had always been part of the Olympics, so when we realized that this is not going to happen, we had to innovate," says Mr. Koss, who was deeply disappointed by the decision. "I said, let's not spend time butting heads over this. We needed to find other ways to bring our message out to the population of Canada and to work with the athletes."
More Leadership stories:
- Why David Miller doesn't read the papers
- Bonnie Fuller: 'Never face facts,' and other advice from the magazine queen
- Julie Payette: Childhood dreams sent her into orbit
Right to Play's innovations during the Vancouver Games included building World of Play, an interactive exhibit at Concord Place visited by 100,000 people, and a television channel called Right to Play TV created through the CBC.
"It was beautiful," says Mr. Koss. "In the end, we were very successful, which means we can bring solid, sustainable funding long-term to the locations where we are working."
Mr. Koss describes leadership as being able to see the opportunities.
"The worse thing I know is apathy - the people who believe nothing can be done," says Mr. Koss. "I don't care if that apathy is in Canada or in the refugee camps or orphanages, we try to eliminate that.
"Those leaders need to be able to come out of a crisis situation and innovate - to say if something isn't possible, I can do it this way. I can find other ways to do it, but the outcome and results will be just the same. There will always be challenges and problems to anything you do."
Follow us on Twitter: