5 business lessons from a winning rowing team | Fin24

5 business lessons from a winning rowing team

May 03 2018 12:09
finweek team

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of how the University of Washington's rowing team won gold at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

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The Boys in the Boat, which tells of the epic journey of a rowing team from the University of Washington, has lessons just as relevant to the workplace today as it did for the crew of determined men who rowed their boat to victory, glory – and gold – at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

It’s an inspirational, true story set against the backdrop of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The book recounts the life of Joe Rantz and eight other working-class youths who go from obscurity in the US Midwest to beating elite rowers from the likes of Harvard and Yale to make it to the 1936 Olympics. Daniel James Brown tells a tale of commitment, psychology, leadership, determination, teamwork – and rowing.

At USB Executive Development (USB-ED) and finweek’s recent We Read For You (WRFY) event, Carl Kies, CEO of Reutech, explained that George Yeoman Pocock – the “Yoda-like spiritual guru” of the story and legendary race hull builder – exemplified many of the qualities lacking in effective leaders today.

True leaders are those who have vision, an unwavering commitment to success and faith in the abilities of their teams. “Those in positions of leadership need to have the humility to give their employees, regardless of rank, the space to pull together to contribute at a high level,” said Kies. “Egos must yield for the good of the team.”

There are many parallels between teamwork, management and leadership that can be drawn from Brown’s book. “Executing strategy often requires teamwork; it cannot be done alone," he adds.

Five key lessons from the book include:

All good strategies start with a vision

Just as the rowers set their sights on Olympic gold, businesses also need to have a vision. A clearly articulated vision is the basis of any effective strategy.

It is vital for a leader, manager or business owner to define the vision and cascade a practical plan to achieve it at every level of the business. Every member of the team needs to live the vision – especially the leader.

It is about focus – ‘Mind in Boat’

The “boys in the boat” came from humble backgrounds with no competitive rowing experience before college. What they did possess was grit, determination and a single-minded purpose and shared will to succeed.

Driving their efforts was an unrelenting focus on the end goal. Taking your eye off the ball is a slippery slope to failure – as many a doomed strategy will attest. For the coxswain and eight rowers it was always about “MIB” –  “Mind in Boat”.

No ‘I’ in team – playing to one another’s strengths

Teamwork is about people trusting in one another’s capabilities and setting one another up for success.

Plan, execute, monitor, repeat

Success comes from repeating multiple processes over and over again to get the balance right. Excellence often comes from discipline.

Finding ‘the swing’

Those who have participated in rowing will know that it is all about “hitting the swing”, that moment when energies and efforts are aligned in perfect harmony. When a boat hits its swing, it goes faster with more glide between strokes. Finding the “swing” is reliant on absolute trust between team members. In the workplace, trust catalyses “swing” – a synchronicity of effort and purpose.

As Pocock says in the book: “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.”

The remarkable achievements of the 1936 Olympic team reminded a country of what can be done when a team pulls together to create a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.

For businesses, individuals and as team South Africa, The Boys in the Boat is a reminder to pull together to show the world what we may be able to achieve as one unified nation.

finweek is the USB-ED’s media partner in its We Read For You series (WRFY). The next event will be held on 15 June, where the book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David will be presented. To register, click here. Admission is free. 

This article originally appeared in the 10 May edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter here.

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