John Furlong: Coming 'out of nowhere'

By Douglas Todd, July 1st, 2010

"If you're asking people to go through fire for you," he said, "you have to be willing to get down on your knees with them and claw that success out of the dirt."

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John Furlong's approach to leadership: Mix stubborn competitiveness with creating an almost spiritual bond with employees and the public.

The little-known Irish immigrant who was surprisingly chosen to head the Vancouver Olympics didn't get his leadership skills out of a book. And that may explain why he was able to find the right stuff to pull off a $1.9-billion event that rocked the nation.

Asked to describe his leadership style in a meeting with The Vancouver Sun's editorial board, Furlong didn't have formulaic answers. But he did offer insights into what makes him tick -- and it had a great deal to do with proving to the world an Irish lad from proverbial "nowhere" could do something great.
During his nine-year effort to win and stage the Vancouver Winter Games, the three leadership abilities that stood out to observers about Furlong were his obsessive work ethic, his ability to inspire others and his common touch; a readiness to get down with 1,300 employees and thousands more volunteers.
But at least one of Furlong's key leadership traits grows out of his everyday roots as one of six children growing up in Ireland.

That's where he picked up a burning drive to make something of himself, and came to see sports as the ultimate metaphor for getting there -his model for winning, becoming someone.

Twice in the conversation with The Sun, Furlong talked about his undying admiration for people "who have come out of nowhere" -to "be the best," to "show what's possible."

In Furlong's case, "nowhere" was the tiny town of Tipperary in rural Ireland, where he was born in 1950.

That's where his father worked as a prison official and the family got around in a crowded, well-worn car, with his dad always picking up hitchhikers.

He spoke of a seminal moment as an early teen when on TV he watched another outsider "come from nowhere" to have his name forever etched in the history books.

In 1964, when Furlong saw American long-distance runner Billy Mills (right), a Sioux Indian, pull off the race of his generation, coming out of obscurity to upset the front-runners in the 10,000-metre race at the Tokyo Summer Games.

Mills' legendary win, in which Furlong says Mills beat his own best time by 50 seconds, eventually became the subject of the 1984 movie, Running Brave.

"I remember seeing that race and thinking, 'God, anything is possible,' " Furlong said, his Irish lilt breaking through. "I thought, 'You can be that guy.' "

Inspired by Mills, Furlong worked his way onto Ireland's Olympic basketball and handball teams.
After moving to Canada while in his 20s, and playing more sports, he broke his ankle just before a national squash championship. He taped up the ankle and went to the finals anyway, earning a bronze.
"It was the stupidest thing I ever did," he says. But there is pride in his voice.

In addition to his almost-inhuman determination, Furlong has developed at least three other crucial leadership skills.

One has to do with Irish people's stereotypical gift of the gab, if not the blarney.

Noted for his storytelling, Furlong self-deprecatingly admits, "I can't even say my own name quickly." He illustrates his point by taking almost 15 minutes to answer the first question posed to him.

Furlong, however, is also noted for his ability to inspire, to move people to tears with his speaking style. He constantly talked about how important it was for both him and his staff to have "belief," a kind of secular faith, in their ability to put together a successful Olympics.

And Furlong certainly needed to draw on that "belief," that super-self-confidence, on the day in 2004 when he was appointed CEO of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Committee.

That's when Dick Pound, the high-level International Olympic Committee official, announced to journalists that, even though Furlong was a nice guy, he was not up to the daunting task that had been handed him.

Furlong felt wounded. But Pound's patronizing attack just gave him more motivation. It made him feel he had even more to prove -- to himself, and the watching world.

"You either believe or you don't believe," he says. And he worked himself to exhaustion for that belief, including to a virtual collapse in late 2008.

His strong belief also included an attitude, basically, of shutting out criticism. When people are trying to bring you down, he says, "you just ignore the white noise."

Some might credit Furlong's success to a mere stubborn streak. But, whatever you call it, it's a stubbornness that Furlong managed to convey to battalions of Olympic workers.

Much of leading by example is "body language," he says. It is finding a way through one's physical presence to convey the almost religious belief that, despite the odds, things will work out -that the sacrifices everyone makes to reach an organization's goals will be worth it.

In addition to giving workers independence, he believes any leader has to put in long hours to help forge a close bond with all those involved.

Whether or not one shares Furlong's devotion to the Olympics, he does not convey a hint of alienating superiority in his enthusiasm for it.

"If you're asking people to go through fire for you," he said, "you have to be willing to get down on your knees with them and claw that success out of the dirt."

Perhaps it is dramatic statements like that which may best illustrate Furlong's ultimate gift for leadership: When he says such things, he really appears to mean them.
Latest News
Vancouver Whitecaps FC announced today that John Furlong, former chief executive officer of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC), has been named executive chair of the club. Furlong assumes his new role with Whitecaps FC effective immediately.
CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games attended the Red Mitten Weekend and made a surprise donation of his one and only Blue Jacket. The Blue Jacket was signed by John and will become a permanent part of the Vancouver 2010 Gallery at the BC Sports Hall of Fame.