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Leadership lessons from a small boat

This weekend, I’m off to Perth with my rowing crew, the Warriewood Crustys. We’ve already won Silver at the NSW State Championships. Now we venture west with our eyes on the main prize – Australian Gold! We’ve worked hard and improved out of site. We’ve also learned what it takes to perform at the highest level – lessons that translate to the world of business leadership. I share some of them here.

It starts with getting out of your comfort zone
I spend a lot of time working alone. There’s not much water-cooler conversation in a boutique leadership consultancy and it’s easy to become detached. Humans are social animals - we need social interaction to bring out our best selves. We also need to work out physically to combat the effects of our increasingly automated, virtual and power-assisted lives.

I discovered the perfect outlet for me in the sport of surfboat rowing. Surfboats are 8 metres long and carry 4 rowers and a ‘sweep’, who steers, strategises and ‘motivates’. We race in carnivals with 6 boats at a time competing in an out-and-back course of 800 metres. I joined a Masters crew in early 2016 and learned quickly of the dangers, leaving my second carnival in an ambulance. On the wrong day this can be a dangerous sport. It’s definitely belongs in the ‘exciting scary bucket. Anyone who has taken on the ocean knows, there’s only ever one winner. As an unknown poet wrote in a verse that graced the desk of President John F Kennedy:

Thy sea, O God,
so great,
My boat so small,

Preparation counts
The ‘7P’s principle applies nowhere more than in a surfboat. ‘Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance’. Rowing is hard work. Some experts believe that Olympic rowers are the ultimate athletes. Whilst we don’t quite scale those heights, my crew has trained 4 times a week and in January completed a 200km surfboat marathon. We endlessly rehearse the many technical aspects. There’s a lot of hardware flying around and plenty of “don’t do that”, “don’t stand there”, “go NOW!” stuff to learn. This preparation, awareness and discipline is exactly the stuff required of strong leadership teams. The more we train together, the more situations we encounter and overcome (or not!) the more we learn and the better we perform.

Build the capacity to go faster
Boat speed is fundamental to success. The fastest boat will win more often than not. For our assault on the Australian title, we have increased our rating (the number of strokes we row per minute) by 15%. It sounds easy and an obvious way to go faster. But the challenge is to be able to actually ‘work’ at that higher rate, rather than just flail around ineffectively. Managing the increase requires a LOT of work to boost both physical fitness and technical execution.

Many businesses I work with operate too slowly. They have become comfortable at a certain speed. Trouble is, the world has changed. As leaders, we need to up the pace in response. Wherever we are ‘at’, we can go faster. Imagine what your business could achieve if it ran 15% faster. 15% greater productivity and 15% greater revenue leading to possibly an even great % profit. But don’t underestimate the level of work required to move the speed dial - or be afraid to encourage your people to push beyond what they currently think is possible.

The collective effort is everything
Collaboration in teams is much-vaunted, but often little-seen. We’ve been taught to compete rather than collaborate. I do a lot of my mentoring work helping leaders to develop a genuinely collaborative intent and capability.

In a surfboat there’s no choice. It’s one of the ultimate collaborative experiences. The actions of one person significantly effect the collective effort. A missed-stroke, lapse of concentration or a delay in reacting to whatever the ocean is throwing up can result in anything from reduced boat speed to spectacular failure.

Mark Hodgson
A marathon not a sprint
When I started rowing, I thought the event was a sprint. So I pulled like a maniac out to the turning buoy ……… and then faded horribly, exhausted. I now know it is more like an 800 metre run. Effort must be measured, conserved and then expended at just the right time.

It’s the same with team performance. We can’t be incessantly running at full tilt. I remember a weekly sales meeting from years ago. Every Monday it was a ‘big sales week’ with huge targets. After a while, I realised these were unachievable. The motivational speech became anything but …… yet, used sparingly, I don’t doubt it could have been effective.

A time to GO! and a time to wait
If the waves are big, the strategy must shift. The focus moves from progress to survival. Once the starting gun goes, we may get off the beach and then stop and hold position, waiting for a gap in the bigger ‘set’ waves. On either side, competing crews may take a chance and rush heroically into the oncoming breakers. It’s easy to feel we are missing out, that we’ve made a mistake. Sometimes the competition get ‘out’, but, more often, they get stopped by the first wave and then – stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time – smashed by the second. Having waited, we then choose the right moment to ‘GO’, get through the break and carry on racing.

Leadership is not about moving forward, unceasingly. Sometimes it’s knowing when to do nothing, to wait-out adverse conditions or allow earlier efforts to take effect. We rely on our sweep to call the shots (fortunately, as rowers face backwards, we can’t see what’s coming!). A great leader must demonstrate the same skills – based on deep market knowledge, good instinct and a comprehensive understanding of the teams’ capability.

Motivation comes in many forms
Above all, we’re in a race. The aim is to win, to expend every ounce of available energy just as the boat crosses the finishing line. Extracting this effort is an art-form. Again, the sweep drives everything. Strategies range from encouragement: “come on, we’re placed second, one boat-length back, give me 5 big ones”, to fear: “you better pull us onto this wave ‘cos that big one behind is gonna hit us up the arse if you don’t”.

As leaders, there IS a place for both the carrot and the stick!

Be part of something bigger than money or yourself
As important at the competition is, the thing I love even more about surfboat rowing is the people and community. These are ‘get-shit-done’ folk. It’s amazing to see an empty beach transformed within a couple of hours to a carnival of boats, tents, people and racing. It’s the kind of thing that would take a council several days and many hi-viz vests to ‘manage’.

There’s also a great sense of tradition and respect that unites crews ranging from under-19 male and females to gnarly old masters in their 70s. The love of the ocean and of the tradition of the sport is still strong. It’s seen at its finest when passing greats are honoured in a moving, oars-raised ceremony.
In 2018, that’s a rare and precious thing. The Crusty Crew is off in pursuit of National glory at the weekend. We’ve done everything we can to make the boat go faster. With a bit of luck, our hard work will pay off. Win or lose though, we have already become a high-performing team.
Mark Hodgson
Work with Mark
Since 2010 Mark Hodgson has been successfully helping executives, coaches and consultants to build confidence, gain clarity in their message and position themselves as influential thought leaders who people want to work with.

He is the author of Time To Shine - Adapting who you are and what you know to succeed in the ideas economy and a leading thinker and speaker on adapting our personal leadership to succeed in a volatile world. To book Mark as a speaker for your next event contact him here.

If you want to know more about working with Mark to activate this thinking in your world, check out the following options:

Time To Shine – Leader Workshop -> 1-day in-house programme for teams
Time To Shine – 60 or 90 Keynote speech ‘Why Humanity is our point of difference’
Time To Shine - Personal Mentoring Programme -> For organisational leaders, independent consultants, coaches and entrepreneurs.
Contact us on or call +61 425 230 335 for details.
Mark Hodgson

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