Nobody ever took time out in a boat race. There’s no place to stop and get a satisfying drink of water or a lungful of cool, invigorating air. You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the fellow ahead of you and row until they tell you it’s all over … Neighbor, it’s no game for a softy.
- Royal Brougham, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
There are very few places of complete mental and emotional escape left in this world. For me, my greatest place of escape was the water. For three years I’d rise long before the sun started showing glimmers of morning and head to the river. On the water there was this visceral feeling of tranquility that would sweep over me; an experience I have long argued cannot be replicated on land. The rush of water and drumming of oars is the only sound that could permeate the stillness of morning. It’s paradoxically a place of seclusion and inclusion at the same time; a place where I was in a boat with eight other people in front and behind me, but still felt removed from people and totally isolated. Being part of a university crew team was my place to escape the difficulties of college and the challenges of being a twenty-something year old in the most fast paced era of human history; a time where ADHD and anxiety disorders have become commonplace. It’s easy to see – we live in an overstimulated world.
Rowing on the Anacostia River at 5:00am was my sanctuary.
What’s remarkable about when you find a refuge of escape is how close you become to the things you’re trying to remove yourself from. My time on the water taught me invaluable lessons about how a team truly operates; lessons that aren’t communicated in your run-of-the-mill “Teamwork 101,” or “Build Your Business Better” book. These lessons transcend sport and business into a realm of universal practices. For me, crew was the archetype of understanding on how a team works and functions. I learned more about how to succeed while rowing than I ever could have learned from a self-help manual or a motivational speaker. Every perfect stroke is 10 more meters closer to the finish line. Ten more meters closer to success.
Correcting an overused metaphor
I have no doubt everyone is familiar with the exhausted analogy of, “You’re only as good as your weakest player.” Logically speaking this makes some sense to us. Unfortunately, it’s not only overused – it’s wrong. When you spend enough time with an oar in your hand you begin to disagree with the stereotype. What I quickly learned was you’re only as good as your ability to work, or row, as a team. The weak-link is irrelevant in crew. It doesn’t matter how great your technique is or how hard you can pull, if you can’t do it as a unit your boat goes nowhere. The same is true for a business. What’s holding back a business is not the person who just doesn’t get it, or the guy who doesn’t perform as well as everyone else. What’s really holding back a business is an inability to collaborate collectively as a team unit. It’s a challenge of synchronization that makes the difference. It’s about your ability to perform together, not individually.
I’ve seen this happen before, and I’m not buying the weak-link excuse any more. At a previous company I spent time on a team responsible for a large client. A client we eventually lost. This wasn’t because of the person on our team who wasn’t “pulling his weight.” No, it was because we were a team in name only. Metaphorically speaking – no one rowed together and the boat moved nowhere. (At least nowhere toward the finish line.) So why do we throw this analogy around like it’s the gospel truth? Because when we lose we have to blame someone, right? And that someone is usually the person who didn’t do as well as the rest of the team. The simple truth – you have to actually work as a team to succeed.
Criticism in real time
How does crew solve this problem? Instant feedback.
All too often we’re in a position of retroactive feedback. We wait until the team did poorly, or failed to deliver, to provide any sort of instruction or criticism. Well, newsflash … by that point, it’s too late. You don’t wait until the race is over to tell the boat to pull harder.
While rowing you get criticism from the coxswain in real time. If you have a poor stroke, you’re told. If you’re too early to the catch, you’re told. If you’re not pulling your weight, you’re told. Harsh? Maybe. No one really wants to be told they’re not doing a great job, especially while you’re trying to pull nearly 2,000 pounds of boat and rower through the water. It adds particular insult to injury that the person telling you this is often half your size and not even rowing. But what happens is remarkable. Corrections and adjustments are made and the crew realigns and keeps going. Each failure is a valuable learning experience, not to be repeated again. Don’t wait until there’s no hope of a turnaround to deliver feedback. All that really does is rub salt in the wound of a fresh defeat. Feedback is helpful only when someone can still do something with the feedback they’re given.
“The Boys in the Boat”
That’s exactly what my team was. We were a bunch of boys in a boat. But we were learning more about how to achieve success, what it meant to fail, and what it meant to be a real team than anyone else our age. If you’re sitting here reading this and think you have a good team already, I challenge you to strap into a boat with them and see how well you really work together.
Everyone fails at some point in life. Every hot streak eventually cools. Every undefeated team will eventually lose a game. The lessons learned in crew are how to react to the pain of the moment to overcome. Daniel James Brown, author of “The Boys in the Boat,” wrote of the sensation of rowing a race:
The common denominator … is overwhelming pain. And that is perhaps the first and most fundamental thing that all novice oarsmen must learn about competitive rowing … the pain is part and parcel of the deal. It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.
Overcoming the hard truths of pain and failure are inevitable in life. Lessons I learned along the way. What we do with these lessons; however, will shape the future of our success. Blame it on the weak-link again, and you’re still failing. Wait until you reach a point of no return to offer feedback, and you fail again.
Accept that you’re one team – a team that works, or rows, together for the benefit of the group. Not the individual. Be proactive with real time feedback. Know that there will be pain. Acknowledge that you will fail. And if you can do all of this … and you can keep rowing – well then you’ve rowed to success.
As eQ’s Writing Specialist, Eric Stewart works his creative magic by putting our Team’s concepts, ideas, and methodologies into words!