Special Olympics’ Leadership Academy

Svetlana Fenichel: Senior Manager, Organizational Excellence , Special Olympics

Supernova Award Category: 

Future of Work: Human Capital Management

The Organization: 

Special Olympics is a global movement that unleashes the human spirit through the transformative power and joy of sports, every day around the world. We empower people with intellectual disabilities to become accepted and valued members of their communities, which leads to a more respectful and inclusive society for all.

The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

The Problem: 

In 2014, Special Olympics, a then almost 50-year-old organization, was implementing a new strategic direction and seeking to overcome various leadership skills gaps. Responding to a very urgent need, Special Olympics had to scale up leadership development to achieve more sustainable social change across the organization.

By creating a leadership development program, Special Olympics sought to provide leaders with an opportunity to reflect on their role and receive access to tools for performance improvement. Additionally, it offers a unique chance to step back from day-to-day work, collaborate with other leaders and identify how to further enhance positive impacts on the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, their families and the wider community.

Critical to the program’s success was Special Olympics’ ability to deliver a modern, robust learning solution standardized and accessible to diverse leaders across all 220 programs and 174 countries it serves.

The Solution: 

Special Olympics’ Leadership Academy includes four face-to-face, year-long regional modules each year. Each module consists of a workshop with action planning, coaching, peer and self-directed learning to provide continuous and comprehensive and mobile leadership development to support following a face-to-face event build on the principle of belnded-learning.

To enhance the impact of face-to-face learning, Special Olympics leverages cutting-edge content from partners and intersperses it with guest speakers, panel discussions, and dialogue cafés in a “jigsaw” format where every cohort experiences similar content themes within a coherent learning journey. Percipio, Skillsoft’s intelligent learning experience platform, allows the participants to use supplemental learning content during workshops, and continue learning afterwards based on their needs and interests in addition to consuming curated content.

The Results: 

Special Olympics’ learning initiative has enrolled leaders from 107 countries and delivered 18 modules to date. Leveraging Percipio and Skillsoft content has enabled Special Olympics to curate valuable learning material that is appealing to leaders, with and without an intellectual disability, across the world. This innovative leadership development program has empowered leaders to be more authentic, strategic and effective.

Additionally, participants’ behavior and communication has improved following the program. Employees are taking more time to talk to staff directly and facilitate more office dialogue while also taking a proactive role in resolving conflict and helping departments overcome persistent challenges. Participants frequently report that their staff are more creative, confident and independent in doing their work because of their effort at being a better supervisor and leader. The program has had transformational impact on leaders with and without a disability when they studied leadership together. It has built their confidence and enhanced their approach to building inclusive communities.


The development of strong and visionary leaders has proven crucial to the health and sustainability of Special Olympics. As a direct result of Special Olympics’ Leadership Academy, program participants have:

  • Generated $4.3M in new resources thanks to ideas and knowledge received during the Leadership Academy
  • Built 295 new partnerships around the globe
  • Recruited 40,000+ new athletes

Currently, 365 leaders from 107 countries have completed one or more Leadership Academy modules while 27 of these participants have received promotions since completing the training. Participants have confirmed the Leadership Academy has been a significant growth experience for them.

  • 83% state that their change in mindset and attitudes was ‘highly significant’ and ‘significant’
  • 86% noted ‘highly significant’ and ‘significant’ changes in personal development
The Technology: 

With the help of Percipio, employees and athlete leaders with and without an intellectual disability have access to 700 pre-curated channels with hundreds of thousands of multimodal learning assets. This provides learners with the choice of where, when and how to learn. Following this successful blended learning pilot, the Academy will utilize more technology-based learning, leveraging the Percipio platform more creatively curating content to complement topics covered in in-person workshops.

Disruptive Factor: 

To accomplish its goal of training 150 people annually, it has introduced blended experiential learning (BEL). Combining face-to-face and technology-based approaches in new and innovative ways, Special Olympics’ provides hands-on continuing education to existing Academy participants while giving training opportunity to a continuously growing number of leaders despite limited resources.

This cost-effective, ongoing leadership development program enables Special Olympics to achieve a deeper level of impact using a variety of leading-edge training and development techniques. 

The Leadership Academy is one of the global non-profit sector’s strongest, most comprehensive leadership development programs, leveraging a unique approach to inclusive leadership called Unified Leadership. The program includes athlete leaders (people with intellectual disabilities) as full workshop participants, to drive inclusive leadership within and outside of Special Olympics. By leveraging ‘Unified’ leadership development opportunities, where people with and without disabilities learn together, Special Olympics is pioneering a ground-breaking approach making a significant contribution to the important topic of inclusive leadership practice. Learning is experiential in those unique settings (direct interaction with athlete leaders) and unusual (the minority group are the teachers).

Shining Moment: 

Unified leadership is based on 2 key building blocks, developing leadership skills in people with intellectual disabilities and building inclusive mindsets in mainstream population through education/interaction with athlete leaders. 28 of 365 Leadership Academy participants have intellectual disabilities (athletes). These athletes developed leadership skills that help them with meaningful integration in society while this inclusive learning benefits leaders without intellectual disabilities.

About Your Organization

Special Olympics is a global inclusion movement using sport, health, education and leadership programs every day around the world to end discrimination against and empower people with intellectual disabilities. Founded in 1968, the Special Olympics movement has grown to more than 6 million athletes and Unified Sports partners in over 190 countries.