I love the sport of rowing. It’s exciting to watch the boats as groups of 4-8 rowers work in unison to get the small vessel, sometimes only as wide as your waist, to the finish line. It’s not uncommon for these races to come down to the wire with a second or less separating the leader from other contenders.
From the training to the race, there are quite a few things that you can model in your leadership based on rowers.
As Mike and I have taken the journey to get stronger and better shape, one activity that we both have picked up is rowing (on machines in our homes). It’s a fantastic full-body exercise that can be as challenging as you want it to be.
Rowing is also a great sport to watch and participate in, with races usually coming down to a second or less
Focus on the present when things get real
All the training is well and good until things get real and the situation doesn’t go as planned. When you think of Olympic-level champions, you may not think of Canada, but they won Olympic Gold at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.
One of the rowers, Adam Kreek, does a great job of telling an engaging story of their win that day. They raced enough to know that it would take the team 220 strokes to get to the finish line. He tells about the millions of strokes that were put in during the training just for it all to be reduced down to 7 strokes. Don’t worry about the other 213 strokes. Their coach had them put in 7 solid strokes, all out, and then refocus for 7 more.
There are a lot of distractions going on during the short amount of time that the race happens. (the crowd, the other boats, your teammates, your pain, etc) Adam shares how a distraction got the best of him for just a split second causing him to lose control of his oar. Both he and his called out to focus on the present. He was able to recover and the team moved on to victory.
Adam’s loss of focus could have easily cost his team the gold. In the military, we are taught that a loss of focus at the wrong time can cost you and others their lives. When a situation gets critical in importance and timing, stress consistency in order to be successful, help your teams stay laser-focused on what is directly ahead of them. One of the teams that I work with were struggling with a project that could have long-term implications for thousands of people, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The issue was that the debate about the long-term was costing us work on a short-term solution that needed to be settled that week. My mantra became, “Let’s focus on what we have to fix today so that we can have a chance to influence the future.” Once they changed their focus to the present, we were able to knock out a solution in under 24 hrs.
Embrace a group ego and shared leadership
I firmly believe in the power of servant leadership and the thought of others over self. At the same time, I also believe that there is power in group ego. One of my proudest accomplishments during the operations-focused part of my career was restoring a region that was previously the most respected and highest-performing area but had lost its way. I leaned hard into shared success and touted the pride and honor of being a part of our team. Leaders bought back in and began owning their part of our success. In just two short years, we did it, restoring sales success and lowering turnover tremendously through the process.
The best rowers embrace the same mentality. Adam owned his error in the race. He called himself out and kept moving forward. That year at the Olympics, the Canadian team was catching all kinds of attention for what was regarded as unsportsmanlike conduct. The guys weren’t provoking anyone, but they were so sure of what they had built that they simply ignored the competition, because they felt the only true competition was themselves – to either win it or lose it.
Do your people take authentic pride and joy in being a part of your team? Is it propped up in a superficial way or will it wether any proverbial storm? Here are some tactics to begin to instill that in the teams that you are a part of.
- Share the vision of where you want to go. Help them see the Why and the future state that you are trying to move towards.
- Brag on each other’s progress.
- Share examples of how the team is influencing the larger strategy.
- Share feedback that you are getting about the team
- Share customer stories about the group.
- Celebrate and spread the news as others reach their career goals as a result of being on the team.
Create a team of leaders
The Canadian coach would tell Adam and the team that rowing was 90% athletic skill and 10% leadership. He lived that out as the team collapsed during the Olympics prior to their gold medal run.
The team had the first half of shared leadership down – a strong vision of the goal and how to get there. They lacked the power of the second half – they heavily relied on their coach for inspiration, direction, and accountability. Once they leaned into the power of leadership in each other, they unlocked a whole new level of potential. They no longer needed the coach to call out opportunities. Each was brave enough to do it themselves. The team’s point person ebbed and flowed depending on the situation and individual strength of the other rowers on the team.
Serve your team by building a group of leaders that is not dependent on your singular focus and vision. Your team will be better served, more adaptable, and have higher success as a result.
Sometimes success comes down to the inches and the details of the work that you and others do for your shared success. Adam’s team won the gold medal by a little over one second, which equates to 220 inches. How many strokes did it take the team from beginning to end? 220! They beat the next-best team by one inch per stroke.
Build pride in your team, help everyone own their responsibility, lower the focus down as things get challenging, and create shared leadership along the way.
Make a better tomorrow.