Boys in the Boat

A couple of things that I’ve enjoyed being part of, enjoyed reading about, and have been fascinated with over the years are sports and leadership.  With sports, heavens — I really can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a sports fan. (I remember taking my transistor radio out at recess so I could listen to the call of Bob Gibson pitching in the World Series).  With leadership, my interest has only grown (and I hope matured) through the variety of professional and personal opportunities that I’ve had.

One of the links between sports and leadership is that to be successful at either takes a great team.  I have been enjoying reading Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I’m learning more about rowing, a sport I didn’t know much about, and I’m also learning about teamwork.

Some themes:

No time-outs:

“Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports. Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance. The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body.” —George Yeoman Pocock (the boat builder)

In many ways, our lives in the office can be seen like rowing.  That is, “once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions.”  Things often happen fast and furious once we get to the office, and for many of us this continues well beyond the office with flurries of emails. But unlike rowing, while we do find ourselves in the “heat of the battle” while at work, we often do and should take the opportunity to “take a deep breath” when needed.  As leaders, we should model “take a deep breath” behavior. As Pocock suggests, it is our responsibility as leaders to “impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body” to those with whom we work.

Importance of teams:

Honoring and celebrating differences:

“By and large, every rower in an eight-oared shell does the same thing—pull an oar through the water as smoothly as possible, as hard and as frequently as requested by the coxswain. But there are subtle differences in what is expected of individual rowers depending on which seat they occupy.”

In the same way, everyone on our team is focused on our mission. But just like rowers, successful office teams understand that each of us occupies different seats on the boat, and because of that we bring unique skills to meeting our mission.  For me, successful teams are those who not only recognize the need for unique skills but also honor, celebrate and nurture how they positively impact meeting our mission.

Sacrifice ego:

Pocock reminds us that the most important quality is the “ability to disregard his (our) own ambitions, to throw his (our) ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his (our) shell, and to pull, not just for himself (ourselves), not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.”

Successful teams are made up of individuals who are willing to set their own ambitions to the side to ensure the success of the team.  For me, an obvious example of where we as leaders can model this behavior is when we give away the credit for success, recognizing that the success is due to the work of the team.

I’ve got your back:

“But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat.”

This notion that the success of the team is dependent on each team member contributing as best they can is as true for rowing as it is with our own teams.  One thing that I’ve become particularly aware of as I’ve found myself spending more and more time away from the office recently is that our team remains successful because every team member has each others’ back.  Every team member has a willingness to step up to whatever challenges the team may have, and put aside personal priorities to meet the greater priorities of the team.

This truly strikes home for me because I am in the midst of needing to take a number of days away from the office.  It is with a great deal of appreciation and humility that I watch our JMU Outreach & Engagement team as they work together in meeting our mission.  There is no doubt in my mind that each of you embody Pocock’s description of team and self: “The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.”  Thank you.

Building or steering the boat:

“It had to be precisely straight, he said, for the whole sixty-two-foot length of the boat, not a centimeter of variance from one end to the other or the boat would never run true. And in the end that trueness could only come from its builder, from the care with which he exercised his craft, from the amount of heart he put into it.”

One of the questions invariably asked in an interview is to describe your leadership style.  For a number of years I saw myself as the captain of the ship: mapping out the course and then leaving it to the team to do what they do so well in keeping the ship moving. As captain, I provided input on “keeping the boat on course.” Recent experiences both at JMU and with UPCEA have modified how I see my leadership style, moving from being a captain to being the boat builder.  As a builder, one needs to begin, as Covey reminds us, with the end in mind.  What do we want the boat to do? Is it to be a fast boat that excels in short distances, or is it a stable boat that must stand the test of time? Will it be a boat that can run well, “run true,” no matter who is at the helm?

I know that successful leadership cannot be easily categorized as builder or as captain, and that there are important attributes needed from each if a leader is to be successful.  What I’ve found to be true is (whether you see yourself as a captain or builder) is that we need to understand as a leader that ultimately success is not about me, it is about the team.

I wish I had the secret sauce for how great teams are built.  In Boys in the Boat, the coach kept searching for just that right combination of having the right person in the right rowing seat. In the end what made it work wasn’t individual strength; what made it work was trust.  Trust in the team, trust in the coach, and trust in the boat builder.  I wonder if it could be as simple as Brown suggests: “Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental—the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.”

 

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One Response to Boys in the Boat

  1. Pingback: What the heck does it mean to be a founding dean? | Shaeffer's Forays

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