Lesson 1: A great team must share a vision. As a leader, it is your responsibility to impart this to your team. To inspire them to want to bring this vision to come to fruition regardless of the challenges ahead. When you can create that kind of shared, aligned sense of vision among a team of like-minded and talented people, greatness follows.
Pocock: “It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy is the resistance of the water… But that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support and make you strong in overcoming them.”
Lesson 2: Overcoming adversity makes the team stronger. No great success happens without rising to overcome challenges. Each time a team does this, they get better and better. Especially when you set out to accomplish big things at the start.
Pocock: “Rowing a race is an art… rowed with head power as well as hand power… all thoughts of the other crew must be blocked out. Your thoughts must be directed to you and your own boat.”
Lesson 3: Excellence comes from focus. Anyone who has ever rowed will back this up. When you take time to glance at the crew racing next to you to see if you are beating them, you lose. It throws off the balance of the boat. The crew had an acronym they’d repeat to themselves: MIB, “Mind In Boat.” It holds true in business too. Keep your eyes on what you’re doing. And an eye on where your customer is going. When you think too much about your rivals, you risk second-guessing your own path to greatness.
Pocock: “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.”
Lesson 4: Don’t micromanage. Provide guidance, inspiration, leadership at the start and whenever necessary. But give people responsibility while the race is in progress. Let them push themselves to their own limits. This will bring out the best in them. Just like in business: give your employees visibility and alignment to the strategic plan and empower them for excellence in strategy execution.
Pocock: “A boat is a sensitive thing, an eight-oared shell, and if it isn’t let go free, it doesn’t work for you.”
Lesson 5: Empower your team with the courage to change strategy. The crew learned this first hand. On their way to the Olympics, they need to win a few major US University races first. In one decisive race, coxswain Bobby Moch hangs behind rival California State University for the bulk of the race, waiting to strike as they close in on the finish. Coach Al Ulbrickson didn’t tell him to do this, it was definitely not part of the race plan, but Moch read the situation as it unfolded and changed strategy on the fly. The result; stellar strategy execution and a huge win that led to Washington’s Olympic berth.
Pocock: “One of the first pieces of advice of a good rowing coach… is ‘pull your own weight,’ and the young oarsman does just that when he finds out that the boat goes better when he does.”
Lesson 6: Hold people accountable. Once you set your plan in motion, hold people responsible. Accountability is highly correlated with strong strategy execution. Reward them if they deliver. If they can’t, replace them with someone who can. The Boys introduces us to ‘seat races’ where two boats race, stopping to trade rowers to see who makes the boat go faster. When you find out, they win the seat. That’s how high-performance teams are created.
Pocock: “When you get the rhythm in an eight, it’s pure pleasure to be in it. It’s not hard work when the rhythm comes – that ‘swing’ as they call it. I’ve heard men shriek… when that swing comes in an eight; it’s a thing they’ll never forget as long as they live.”
Lesson 7: Plan, execute, monitor, repeat. A team that plans well, and executes well against plan, becomes a well-oiled machine destined to achieve objectives and win repeatedly. When you build and empower a team to do this, there is no limit to what they can achieve working together.
Pocock: “To be of championship calibre, a crew must have total confidence in each other… confident that no man will let the crew down…”
Lesson 8: Goals must be aligned across the entire team. This is true in many team sports. Anyone who can’t see or support the shared vision or goal can bring the entire team down with them. But when there is true transparency, and when they realize that all the other members of the team are aligned and counting on one another, it brings out the best in each member of the team. This holds true in business: if employees can’t see or support the strategic plan, strategy execution is bound to fail.
Pocock: “My ambition has always been to be the greatest shell builder in the world…I believe I have attained that goal. If I were to sell the business, I feared I would lose my incentive and become a wealthy man, but a second-rate artisan. I prefer to remain a first-class artisan.”
Lesson 9: Goals must transcend attainment of wealth. It is fine to want to get rich. But the path to riches is faster when people have a larger goal in mind. When you wish to be the best at something first, wealth follows. The reverse of this story is not often so certain.
Finally, Lesson 10, Let it run
Lesson 10: Let it run. Along with the “swing” Boys in the Boat talks about, there is another great Zen-like experience in rowing called the run. It occurs when a crew rowing at full speed stops rowing and holds their oars just above water level and lets the boat glide. A great crew will find their boat runs like it’s flying. Some of us have been lucky enough to have rowed in a boat where we were able to get that right. The experience translates well to business. When a leader empowers their team to be their best, and then steps out of the way to let them do it, great things happen as a result and the business just flies.
There are of course lessons to learn about strategy execution, teamwork and leadership excellence from all sports. But not many that inspire the kind of fanaticism that being in a great crew does. It becomes ingrained in the psyche and the lessons can be taken to work every day. And now, thanks to the story of The Boys In The Boat, and the inspirational words of George Pocock, you can, too. The opportunity is yours, take it.
by Mike Scott