Mary Davis is the CEO of Special Olympics International, a movement that currently serves nearly 5 million athletes with intellectual disabilities, holds more than 94,000 competitions annually and welcomes more than one million coaches and volunteers who help make grassroots operations possible.
Mary started with Special Olympics soon after college as a local program volunteer and coach. Since then she has served in a series of leadership roles, helping create our first-ever regional games, the 1985 Special Olympics European Games, working to build a powerful national program as CEO of Special Olympics Ireland, and helping globalise the movement as CEO of the first Special Olympics World Summer Games held outside the US, which was the 2003 Games in Ireland. Mary is married to Julian Davis and has four children: Jonathan, Rebecca, Emma and Patrick.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
Yes, there are lots of leadership academies and courses that a person can take. There are also role models to learn from and books and blogs to read and TED talks to listen to that can be very informative and educational. The important thing is to put into action what you learn, be passionate about your work and be yourself!
When you are filling a leadership role in your organisation what qualities do you look for from candidates?
Authenticity, passion, vision, strong communication skills both internally and externally, ability to listen, influence and inspire people, teamwork.
If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?
I would ask them to support each other, collaborate, communicate with each other and demonstrate enterprise leadership.
What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?
Repositioning the organisation to be an organisation that uses the power of sport to build a more inclusive world that is more respecting and accepting of difference. I am also putting in place a comprehensive succession strategy for the senior team and the CEO position.
What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?
Malala, because I admire very much the way she stood up for girls and their right to education and that she was willing to risk her own life to make change happen. I admire Frances Black and the work she has done through her organisation for addiction. I admire Barack Obama because he inspired millions of people around the world. He rose to the top as a minority against all the odds and he had a humble upbringing by his mother.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
The TED Talk by Stanley McChrystal.
The book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins
Any of Jack Welsh’s books on leadership.