Team Inspiration from The Boys in The Boat
To see a winning crew (team) in action is to witness a perfect harmony in which everything is right…That is the formula for endurance and success; rowing with the heart and hand as well as physical strength.
The Boys in the Boat
Daniel James Brown
Recently, I was reminded of a dramatic, come-from-behind-story that is captivating and inspiring me all over again. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, combines a fascinating history lesson with the Depression-era saga of a scrappy, struggling young man, his teammates and their relentless efforts beating the odds on a legendary eight-man rowing crew at the University of Washington.
Perhaps because I’ve only recently come to appreciate the beauty that is the Pacific Northwest as my oldest son is now living in Seattle or because we watched in awe as multiple boats of rowers seemed to glide in unison down the Willamette-Columbia River in nearby Portland, was I reminded of this gripping story. Or maybe it was because I’m just fascinated by riveting stories of individuals realizing dreams only possible when they are as concerned about the success of their teammates as their own. Whatever the reason, I am mesmerized once again!
This incredible group of underdogs; sons of loggers, fisherman and farmers, stunned whole nations across the globe when they won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. The victory in those Games in Berlin was not about the individual challenges and ultimate success of the main character Joe Rantz or any of his working class teammates. It was about how, over time, these young men became intimately attuned to one another’s strokes, struggles, personal demons and goals. In fact, Joe was at one time the “weak link in the crew” who often “struggled to master the technical side of the sport.”
Eventually, they accomplished what many crews, even winning crews, never really find; “swing.” That is; all oarsmen “rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of sync with those of all the others.” As Brown suggests, “Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once…Only then will if feel as if the boat is a part of each of them… moving as if on its own.”
What has me cheering out loud again is the way Joe and his band of rowing brothers are “fiercely determined” to make sure none of them fails in their collective quest for triumph.
“And yet, at the same time—and this is key—no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding skills…but they have no stars. 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.”
We learn pretty quickly to trust (or not) others. We’ve all been members of a team who have worked with others long enough to know that if we ask for a report, help with a project, to hold a confidence or share a resource, we’ll receive it…often long before we even need it. That’s known as “predictive trust.” I believe that the University of Washington’s rowing team exhibited something else, something bigger. Something Patrick Lencioni, in his groundbreaking work in my DiSC Assessments: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team book calls “vulnerability based trust.” That is; the willingness to share our scars, our fears, our weaknesses, our needs with another, over time…for the health and prosperity of the whole.
Recently I asked my son if he could recall a time that he felt “vulnerable.” After some discussion about what the word meant, he said, “Stepping up to the plate to face a new pitcher after striking out all weekend during the tournament.” Ummm. Vulnerable? That sounded like courage to me.
Brene Brown, in her New York Times Best Seller, Daring Greatly shares reactions from interviewees whom she has posed a similar question in the form of a statement, “Vulnerability is ______.” Some of the responses she shared included:
“Standing up for myself
Asking for help
Sharing an unpopular opinion
Starting my own business
Helping my 37 year old wife with Stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
Falling in love
Waiting for the biopsy to come back
Laying off employees
Calling a friend whose child has just died
Signing up my mom for hospice care.”
Brown goes on to suggest that the feelings those interviewees associated with vulnerability were, in some cases, surprising. Here’s a sample from her work:
“Not sucking it in anymore.”
It’s where fear and courage meet.”
Sweaty palms and a racing heart.”
Going out on a limb…a very, very high limb.
A lump in my throat and a knot in my chest.
Freedom and liberation.
Panic, anxiety, fear and hysteria, followed by freedom, pride and amazement—then a little more panic
Infinitely terrifying and achingly necessary.
It feels like free falling.”
The answer that appeared over and over, according to Brown was the feeling of being Naked—“especially when everyone else is clothed.” “You hope for applause rather than laughter.”
So what does it mean to be vulnerable for you? What about the rest of your team? And how might leveraging that vulnerability help you achieve your team’s “GOLD” as it did for Joe and the University of Washington rowing crew?
Recall the earlier quote from Brown and insert the specifics of you and your team for the italicized words:
“And yet, at the same time—and this is key—no other sport (insert job, profession, industry or other) demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing (insert yours) does. Great crews (insert your team type) may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding, (insert your required knowledge or expertise); but they have no stars. The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water (insert your environmental factors)…. the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew (insert your team type) in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.”
Teams that embrace vulnerability-based trust in order to engage in healthy, unfiltered conflict that leads to clarity and commitment are teams that hold one another accountable for their collective results. These are The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team.
Sheila Krejci, M Ed HRD recently joined an elite group of Accredited Worldwide Partners with Wiley Publishing delivering The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team with leaders and teams.