Leadership doesn’t always have to mean standing in front of a team making a speech; sometimes, it just means being a good example. This is what TSN host James Duthie learned in his years as a sports broadcaster for Canadian television. James hosts the NHL coverage at TSN. He is noted for his charisma that draws attention and makes people enjoy the sports coverage. Being exposed to sports for the bulk of his career, his insights on leadership draws much from the industry. Off-screen, he tries to be a leader through the way he behaves and treats other people. Listen to him share that and more as he talks to Jeffrey Edwards.
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Personal Leadership With TSN Host James Duthie
Thank you so much for joining me here. I’m glad to be with you. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. We have a special guest here and I’m truly honored to introduce this person. He’s someone that I got to know years ago. He is someone you like. You want to know them and get to know them. It’s their personality that allows you to connect with them. When we talk about leadership, what we’re talking about is having that charisma, having that persona that attracts people to you and connects with other people in ways in which they may not have even thought about before. Our guest here is James Duthie. He’s the popular host of TSN.
For those of you outside Canada, TSN is the Canada Sports Network, which would be the equivalent to ESPN in the States. He hosts the hockey coverage. He is the main host for immediate sporting events across Canada and across North America. Over the years, he has garnered a huge following on social media. His style, his charisma is one in which is appealing and it comes across in such a natural way that it draws attention and makes people enjoy the sports coverage. In addition to being a part of sports, he’s a multi-award-winning broadcaster. He is an author. He is a father and also a pretty proud spouse as well. Let’s bring to The Leader’s Chair, Mr. James Duthie.
Jeffrey, I’m not sure if I was worthy of that introduction, but thank you very much. Some of those things you said, I feel the same. You and I used to play football against each other in the Ottawa days. You were always great about staying in touch and sending me nice notes. Those things that you said about me as a human, the same goes for you.
Thank you so much, James. It’s wonderful to be in a situation where we get to connect. I think of the experiences you have and go back to the days when you were starting off in your career. Did you ever imagine yourself being where you are at this point in your life doing what you’re doing?
I dreamed of it. I was your typical guy who wanted to be an athlete when I was a kid and dreamt of being a professional athlete. I wasn’t aware of my lack of talent and genetics. In the back of my head, I said, “I’d love to be a broadcaster.” I used to turn down the TV and do play-by-play on NFL games and NHL games when I was a kid. I did not ever think that I would get to do that. My dad was a conservative guy. He was an RCP officer in Canada. Not that he was a terrific father, but he was very conservative. I don’t think I dreamt big. I wasn’t a shoot for the stars guy. I remember thinking growing up in the suburbs of Ottawa and we’d watch the local sports station in Ottawa, I said, “If I could be the local sports anchor, that would be unbelievable.” I never thought I could be that. I’ve never thought beyond that, being on a national network and getting to cover Masters, Super Bowls and Olympics. Maybe when I arrived the TSN did I think that was possible.Everybody needs that one person who believes in them somewhere along the way. Click To Tweet
When you speak with other journalists and people who are going through school and learning the business, what do you see in them that when you look back on your experience, you would hope that they can see themselves in terms of their own ability and even how they can help themselves move forward in their careers?
Believing in yourself and confidence, like almost any other industry, and I’m not sure I always have that belief in myself. I can remember one of my university profs. I did a TV story and he wrote on the top of it, he said, “I think you could do this for a living.” That was the first time that I ever believed that was possible, which shows you the importance of a teacher. One person saying that to you planted the seed in my mind that I could have that career because I’m not sure. I lacked confidence like anybody else who’s going through high school or university. There’s so much uncertainty in your world. I had no clue, but that was the first time somebody gave me a jolt of maybe I can do this. That belief in yourself is so important.
From a tangible standpoint, as far as skills, for a broadcaster journalist, they focused at Carleton, where I went to school on writing and I became a good writer. Not just in the sense of being able to write a book, but writing for television and writing for radio. That’s a skill that I see that a lot of people don’t have in broadcasting. That helped me. I always tell young broadcasters, “Work on your writing ability as much as possible.” Those are a couple of things as a human being and then as an up and coming journalist that are important.
You mentioned about having that teacher that you meet and that inspires you or implants that belief in you that this could be possible. I find that as well in the work that I do in working with organization leaders. They all share the same idea that, “I wish I had someone who I can have as a mentor in my life to help guide me. Who can I go to ask questions and figure this all out? I feel like I’m going through this all alone in life.” Who are the people in your life who are like that in addition to your experience at school?
I was fortunate enough, first of all, to have two parents who were very supportive, despite what I said about my dad being a conservative guy. They were like, “Do whatever you want and we will support you.” It always starts with that. People aren’t always that fortunate to have two parents like that are that supportive. Sometimes you have to look elsewhere. In my first job, there was a guy named Max Keeping, who you’re familiar with. A lot of your readers will not be. He was the news anchor in Ottawa. If that prof in Carleton was the first one to believe in me, then Max was the first one at a professional level who said he saw something in me.
I did an internship at the station. He clearly saw something in me and kept giving me opportunities. I always think you need that one person who believes in you somewhere along the way. I know that’s frustrating for people if you can’t find that person. If you work hard enough, somewhere along the way, whether it’s in your job or somewhere, you’ll get that person who sees something in you and says, “This guy is worthy of my support.” In that case, I owe my entire career to Max because he’s the one who hired me. Other people at the station didn’t want to hire me because I was too young. I was the news reporter and I wanted to do sports. People said, “No, don’t do sports.” Max gave me the opportunity to do sports.
The belief in myself, the belief in my dream and to have that one person who kept saying, “I’m going to keep giving you these opportunities,” that’s an incredibly lucky thing in life. Sometimes you earn it. Sometimes you get lucky with it. I would say that he definitely was for me. At TSN, I’ve had a number of people like that who’ve been that supportive, the people you could go to. I have friends too. I have a lot of friends from the dear friends that you have. I have a weird friends’ group where probably my ten best friends in the world, they’re all from grade 3 and 4 and we stayed together. Those are still the guys that I trust to bounce things off of if I maybe don’t feel confident, bouncing it off a colleague or something to say, “What do you think of this?” They’re still often the first people I go to for something like that.
Do you find that having that core group of people who you’ve grown up with that whatever feedback they’re going to give you it’s going to be real? It’s going to be genuine and they’re doing it because they want to support you.
You’ll never have anything in your life like your closest friends. Even if they don’t understand your business or something, they’re still the people that you can go to and bounce something off of. When you feel completely free to trust them, that’s the most invaluable thing in the world.
I often wonder from the perspective that you have. You’ve interviewed world-class athletes. You’ve interviewed stars in entertainment, in sports. I’m wondering, when you take a look at them, when you talk with some of these athletes and people, what would you say or what do you hear from them in terms of how do they approach life?If you can take that fear of failure and spin it into something that pushes you to be better, then that’s a good thing. Click To Tweet
The two things would be supreme confidence, first of all. Sometimes that doesn’t mean cockiness. We’ve all seen the cocky athletes, but I work with a lot of athletes who are super nice guys that are not cocky outwardly. That’s an unbelievable skill too, the guys that are modest about their abilities, but have absolute 100% belief in themselves. Those are the athletes I’m most impressed with. A lot of hockey players are like that. That’s ingrained in them to not be too showboaty, but to still have that confidence. The other thing would be competitiveness. The most common characteristic I see in the elite of the elite athletes is that absolute, “I have to win.” It’s funny because it’s a trait that is not an admirable trait. Let’s say if you’re in gym class in high school or something, and there’s that one jerk who is a suck when he loses the game.
Sidney Crosby’s agent once told me a story about having Sidney over for dinner. The agent had about an eight-year-old boy, and Sidney was playing checkers against the boy while dinner was being prepared. The kid beats Sidney. In the incident that Sidney lost, he hit the checkerboard instead of flying across the room angry. Two seconds later, he was horrified and said, “I’m sorry,” and he went and picked up the checkers and apologized to the kid. In that moment, the thought of losing made him so angry. Anybody who’s watched the Michael Jordan documentary that’s airing everywhere about the Chicago Bulls and his ferocious competitiveness, all those guys, Gretzky, Crosby, McDavid from hockey, Jordan, they hate losing. They can’t live with the idea of losing.
It’s almost a sad thing in a way because I’ll talk to athletes at the end of their careers. They’ll tell me they’ll win three Super Bowls, but they’ll remember the ones that they lost more than the ones they win because it bothers them so much to lose. I don’t know what the message is in there to all your readers, as far as our everyday field of life, we can’t all be that way. You don’t want to be the guy who’s chucking something around in a meeting or whatever when things don’t go your way. There is something in that, that everybody has maybe deep inside them, not to that extent of that desire to be successful. It has to burn in you a little bit more than the next guy to have high-level success. Whether it’s a project you’re working on or a PowerPoint or a speech or whatever, you have to want to make it a success more than anybody else. That’s the way the stuff that athletics translates to everyday life.
It’s interesting you say that, James, because the experiences of those athletes that you hear so often that have great potential, they have great skill, but there’s this something that prevents them from getting to that next level. I don’t know if it’s always about the hunger. It might be about the confidence. It sounds like it’s that competitive edge. It’s okay to own it. It’s okay to be, “I want this,” and to go after it.
You don’t have to be a jerk about it. Internally, you can still want it badly. In my business, that would mean that if I’m broadcasting the Gold Medal Game of the World Junior Hockey Championship and I know that’s going to be one of my most-watched events of the year, I will prepare as much as possible so that I can do the best show possible. That’s a weird example because I know that everybody’s tuning and doesn’t care about me. They’re there to watch the hockey game. I’m this guy that throws the commercial break and does the intermissions. In my mind, that’s my whole mental game. For me, having a good performance and doing a good broadcast, that’s my gold medal. Maybe other people aren’t going to notice, but I have to hope that when I sign off at the end of the broadcast, I’m going to feel to myself that I did everything possible to make it a good show.
What about those times where you felt that it didn’t work or you make the mistake, you stumble on? How do you recover from those situations, being someone who’s in front of millions of people?
That is the weird thing about our business. If an average person working in a normal office has a bad day, maybe their boss knows about it or a couple of their colleagues, but nobody else does. Whereas if you have an off day, one million people know about it. That’s one of the weird things about your job. I don’t know that you ever get used to that. The mistakes with experience bounce off you. I used to take it hard. I can remember driving home after work after doing a show where maybe I made a big mistake and cursing and swearing at myself and doing all of those things and saying, “You suck.” I’ve gotten better at that. Things wash off me a little better as I get older and I have a better perspective of life having three children. It certainly helps that. It still frustrates you because you look like an idiot in front of everyone. I’m as insecure as the next person. A lot of people are insecure and it’s how people hide it differently.
There’s always something that drives you. Insecurity drives you in business or in life. There’s always a thought in the back of your mind, “I’m a fraud. I don’t belong in this job. I didn’t earn this.” That always creeps into your mind sometimes. It’s a great motivator. If I was to psychoanalyze myself, I prep hard. After 30 years, I could probably sit here and go on and do a show and I’d be fine, but I still prepare for it almost like it’s an exam because I don’t want to screw up. There’s that fear of failure in the back of your mind that you’re going to be revealed to be this fraud at what you do. We all have a little bit of that. If you can spin it into a positive and if that pushes you to be better or pushes you to prepare more, then that’s a good thing.
From what I have seen, you don’t take your success for granted. You’re constantly working on it and it’s always like, “How can I improve?”
“How can I be better?” That’s for everybody. When you see that, taking it back to sports, if Steph Curry’s the one out there taking 3,000 shots a night or Michael Jordan, it’s ridiculous. The failure that happens in sports and sometimes in life is people reach a plateau and they say, “I’m here now. I did all the work. I made it.” That’s the end of the movie, roll the credits. Instead, you forget what it took to get there. The most successful people in any business get there and work even harder to try and stay there.The most successful people in any business work hard to get to the peak and work even harder to stay there. Click To Tweet
One last question for you, James. Knowing that you have the platform that you do, what does that mean for you in terms of knowing what your influence and impact can have on other people out there in the world?
I still think Canadian cable sportscaster, it’s a platform, but I keep it in perspective pretty well. I would say that the one place and not that I’m so grateful, the one thing it has allowed me to do is to get involved in things to help out. People will ask me to help out with a charity. They conquer COVID-19. If people are familiar with the Hayley Wickenheiser started in Canada. Ryan Reynolds, the actor, helping get PPE to the healthcare workers that can’t have it. They reached out to me and asked if I would help, but I was so grateful to be able to help. I’m sure the story of Jonathan Pitre in Ottawa, The Butterfly Child, who if any of your readers don’t know, was a kid who was born with a rare skin disease.
He went through an incredibly painful life. One of his dreams was to be a sportscaster. I got to meet him and I don’t think I would have ever got to meet him under any other circumstance, but I was able to bring him to TSN and we formed a friendship and got to know him. He passed away years ago. To me, the greatest part of my job is that it allows me to get to know these people and to give back in some small ways here and there. That’s by far the most satisfying element of what I do. It’s opened those doors. I’m part of an organization called Children Believe. I’ve done some trips with my children to Africa and Central America. I’m so grateful that it’s because of my job at TSN that these people care about having me on board. It allows me to do things. Everybody can give and everybody can contribute in some way, but it’s allowed me to do some things that I’m grateful for that part of it.
James, everything that you do, it seems to be of high quality and you bring yourself. I know when I speak with other people and read articles on you, it’s how natural you are. Who you are is what you see is what you get.
That’s one thing with television and that should apply to everywhere. You have to be yourself. People are smart enough to read if you’re not being yourself and yourself isn’t always great. Sometimes I’m too much of an idiot or too immature on television or on my podcast, but you have to be you. Take the words and the good things and the bad things that come with being you and realize that not everybody’s going to like you, especially in a place like television. It’s much easier. I would hate to be one of those people who’s somebody completely different from who they are on a stage or on a TV set or whatever, because that would be a terrible way to live, being a completely different person. That’s what you have to be no matter what profession you’re in.
James, thank you again for making time. You talked about giving back, I appreciate you accepting this invitation and being part of this show and helping out the people out there who are looking at getting themselves in that space of leadership. There are not a lot of people out there who I feel go into leadership with the full intention that this is what they plan to do.
It’s a broad topic. When you wrote me, Jeff, I said, “I don’t even know, am I a leader? Do I have anything smart to say about leadership?” I’ve maybe gotten better at that over the years. I don’t think I was necessarily good at that, but I realized maybe in watching certain athletes, you can be that way at work, whether it’s the panel that I work on or whatever. That leadership doesn’t always mean saying, “Guys, gather around. I’m going to give you a speech,” but the way you behave, the way you treat other people, that’s an important thing. That applies to every workplace. Just because you’re the guy on camera, don’t treat the audio guy or the cameraman like he’s less of a person than you. Those things are critical. It’s awesome touching base with you and seeing your face again. You’ve been wonderful to keep in touch over the years and I’m glad you’re doing this. There are a lot of podcasts like mine that are completely useless.
Thank you so much, James. To you and your family, all the best as we continue to move forward. For all those of you who might be thinking, “Who is this guy? I want to see him in action,” you can check out the TSN.ca website. You can see clips of James and his antics and his crew. Also, you can check him out in the bookstores. He has a number of books as well. Thanks again, James, for being here and thank you all for joining us.
Thank you for joining us here. We look forward to having you back. Any questions regarding this episode, reach out to us. Let us know how we can support you. Until next time. Take care. Be good and lead well.