“My goal is to make you love rowing.” That’s how my first rowing started. I had never picked up an oar or stepped into a racing shell before. With 100 other freshman men, I had assembled at the boathouse along the maple and conifer lined Connecticut River. I’ll never forget those words.
I had played many sports before. In every other case, the focus, the mission, the motivation had always been to win. This was different.
Over the next four years, I came to understand why our coach had started the freshman season this way. Rowing is a brutal and arduous sport.
After the 3, 2, 1 count, two eight men teams and one coxswain - who steers the boat and motivates the crew - place their oars in the water and pull with all their might. As the boat leaves the starting point and lurches into the water, nearly two tons of muscle, sinew and bone moves back and forth, pulling a stroke in less than a second, in a 36 inch wide carbon fiber shell. This has to be done in synchrony, while maintaining the balance of a millimeter-thin racing shell. The winner is the team which works together best, employs the most accurate technique and is willing to suffer more pain.
We trained indoors and outdoors for six months of the year to compete in 8 races of 6 minutes each. 180 days of training in the rain, the snow, the freezing temperatures of New Hampshire, for 48 minutes in total. To be willing to continue rowing each year, you had to love the sport. Really love it. Breathe it.
That’s what our coach, a former Olympian in 1984, knew from his experience and what he instilled in us:
If you wish to build a ship, do not divide the men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.
This quotation captures that espirit de corps better than anything else I’ve read. It’s attributed to Antoine de St. Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, and some of the best adventure books ever written including Sand, Wind and Stars. He had it right.
To evoke exceptional performance from a team, a leader must first inspire love of the dream.