One of my favorite books on the subject of teamwork and leadership is The Soul of Leadership: Unlocking Your Potential for Greatness written by Deepak Chopra. I like the way that the author approaches the concept of leadership from an emotionally intelligent point of view. I have been using the book as a resource to help me guide my coaching style over many years. The section headings in this blog post are taken from this book. I have examined each of them carefully and applied the principles to a rowing team dynamic. However, these principles are universal to any team environment.
One of the most important ideas to come out of psychology is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow established various human needs that need to be met in order to be able to ascend to the next level with the goal being self-actualization. As part of the aforementioned book, Chopra applies this hierarchy of needs to teamwork. I provide the following thoughts on how to evaluate from an athlete’s point of view who is bringing different aspects of leadership to the group.
Leadership and teamwork comes in many different forms and as the saying goes that it takes a village. The hierarchy of needs model implies that you cannot get to a higher level without first establishing the one below it. I agree with this, however, I have also made the observation that the individuals on any team may have strengths in some areas over others. As a result, I think it is valuable for athletes to develop the self-awareness to identify their strengths and leverage them wherever they exist in the model.
One occasion in my coaching career, at a team meeting before a race the next day, I thought that it was important that everyone on the team recognize that they had a role to play on the team. This role would be different depending on the strengths of each individual athlete. Some athletes were motivators, others were organizers and others had strengths in empathy and communication. The fuel for the discussion that evening were the concepts that I discuss below.
The following day, our team functioned at a very high level not just on the water, but off the water when it came to supporting each other and while loading and unloading the trailer. By addressing the various facets of leadership, every team member had the chance to introspect and identify the contribution that they brought to the whole culture.
In any sport the safety needs of the group are paramount. Safety comes in two forms in the sporting environment. First, physical safety is important. There are various factors that go into the use of equipment or the appropriateness of the training plan. Second, athletes and coaches need to develop an environment of trust. This means developing relationships and creating an environment where athletes are appropriately challenged and feel like they can voice their opinions without the threat of negative consequences. In a rowing team, the safety needs often fall on the coaches and the coxswains to ensure that athletes are safe while they are enabled to explore the challenges of new horizons of performance and understanding. Athletes and coaches are able to monitor this environment and provide the support to enable a spirit of trust to prevail. Are you creating a safe environment for your team?
There may be times when stress is running high. This could take the form of a crisis that happens with equipment on race day. For example, you notice that there is something wrong with a piece of equipment and it is time to get hands-on and get ready for a race. If you are this type of leader you need to be able to take action and keep a cool head when the pressure is on. It’s a bad situation when a crew or team feel ruffled just before it is time to perform. Can you keep a clear head and calm the waters when needed?
In a healthy team environment, it is important to ensure that the newest members of the team feel welcome and involved. These athletes know the least about the team culture and the leaders on your team need to work hard to install the values of the culture in them. This also includes making them feel safe and that they have a voice that will be listened to. Are you ready to listen?
I would also like to apply the idea of safety and security to selection protocols. I am specifically addressing the manner in which crews are selected. It is very important that the selection process be transparent, free of bias and objective. In addition, there must be many benchmarks in this process to decide the final seat selection for a particular crew. The need for earning a seat in a crew is a continual process where each day the athlete demonstrates that they are the right choice for a crew. Work ethic, technical achievement, attitude, seat races, erg tests, and peer evaluation (to name a few) all should be considered for selection. When athletes know that their selection depends on a continual evaluation over a long term timeframe, it creates a safe environment. The reason for this is that if selection decisions are made because of one seat race, or one erg test, this creates an environment of anxiety and stress and athletes are on edge much of the time and this does not help promote a positive team environment. Are your selection protocols long term and transparent?
This section is the longest section of all for a good reason. If you don’t have an environment of trust and safety you have absolutely no foundation upon which to build.
It’s possible that you are the motivator on your team. You like to lead from the front, or you are the most vocal at practice. Any team needs this kind of leader. Perhaps you had a bad race the weekend before? The team needs to keep going or maybe you had a bad season and nothing seemed to click right. The team culture needs a personality or collection of personalities to help rally the troops. Could you be this person?
I always like the idea of filling the emotional tank of my teammates. It’s much more important to make deposits in people rather than making withdrawals. Do you know what it takes to win? If you see this as a strength, I encourage you to be the shining light for others to follow. Your motivation will be infectious in a good way. Over time you will see the benefit of bringing your energy to the team. Can you light the fire in others?
There are going to be times in the season when you feel there are disagreements between team members. It’s important to not take a side or bring compassion and empathy to both sides of the issue. You might not be the fastest or most skilled athlete on the team. However, are you the sort of person that understands what makes people click? Are you willing to take the time to talk to your teammates with an open mind? Are you able to be a steady hand as you work toward a resolution for the issue at hand?
There are times when it is important to have the crucial conversations necessary to help understand where your teammates are. This awareness will help them get out of their entrenched positions. While there should be a helpful level of inter-team competition, everyone is working toward a common goal. This should be creating a healthy team culture and helping the team perform at the highest possible levels. Are you able to help focus people to work together for higher levels of achievement and growth?
I see this aspect of leadership as a natural extension of the cooperation leadership outlined above. If you are this kind of leader you actively work to help the team see the best version of themselves. If you see a teammate just going through the motions, this is an opportunity for you to step in. Talk to this person and understand what is going on in their life. There are other aspects of life outside of rowing. Therefore, perhaps this person is struggling with a relationship problem, or they are not doing well in school. It might also be possible that they have just lost their seat in a boat or a starting place on the roster. I
It’s important for the team to recognize all members of the team and pick them up when they are down. It’s possible that more communication is required to get to a place of forgiveness and remind them that they are valued and that their efforts matter. It is also important to help this person find the path that they need to follow to earn their place back in the crew. Alternatively, if they have been demoted to the JV boat that this is an opportunity for leadership and teamwork and a time to demonstrate and share their knowledge with the athletes in the JV team.
It has been said that situations often reveal the character of a person. There is always something to do to help to contribute even if you are not in the place that they think you belong or have worked for. Can you make others feel welcome and valued? Can you make a contribution regardless of the context of your current situation?
It’s important to consider many different training approaches when bringing a team up to speed. From season to season crews change because the individuals change each year. The drills that worked for one crew, might not work for another crew. It’s also important to avoid boredom when programming workouts, especially during the winter months. By keeping training varied and fun, physiological goals can be met along with the important psychological goals.
Hopefully, you are creating an environment for creativity and teamwork to blossom. Invite discussion from others and encourage out of the box thinking. You may have loaded the trailer the same way for a while, but perhaps there is a better way? If you are doing an anaerobic workout, perhaps there is a way to incorporate a sense of fun to the workout?
I once heard Mike Teti talk about a sprint workout at Princeton, where the winner of each sprint piece got to wear a crash helmet. (Although admittedly there are some hygiene issues with this example!) It was a creative way to motivate the athletes in a fun way and brought a great deal of intensity to the training. Look for ways to think outside of the box, be that in training or for general team culture. Are you ready to rethink ideas or contribute in creative ways to your teamwork?
You might be the type of leader that values accountability. If you see teammates cutting corners in training, it is time to hold them accountable. If your strengths lie in compassion, loyalty, and honesty use that to your advantage. Set the example for others to follow. It’s one thing to talk about the values that your team might have, but another to walk the walk. Remind your fellow athletes of the purpose behind all of your hard work. It’s times when the team morale is low where you can exercise your strengths in this area.
Take care of those on your team, regardless of how much experience they have or what boat they might be in. I remember a conversion that I had with Bill Manning once. He was proud of the work his team had achieved at a big event. In addition, he told me to look after my 3V athletes as much as my 1V athletes. He continued to say that it was the third boat guys who felt valued when they were on the team are often the people that donated to the team later on in life because of the experience provided for them. From that one conversation, I learned that if I looked after everyone and took the focus off building my resume then that would help the longevity of the program. Are you ready to compassionately hold others accountable and be the moral compass of your team?
Are you the sort of person that possesses an inner peace that does not get disturbed regardless of any turbulence that might surround you? Actions and/or presence often speak louder than words. You might have a positive effect on your teammates just because you are there. This stage of leadership represents the top of the pyramid, it is the hardest to attain and must be earned on a daily basis (as should all facets of leadership). The essence of leadership is that because of your actions and character you make others around you grow and become more effective.
In essence, you are in the business of empowering others to be the best that they can be. It is not about your ego and your needs. The focus of what’s best for the team and the need for selflessness becomes paramount. If you can reach this level of leadership it moves beyond all other levels of leadership. You are able to transcend many different aspects of human interaction. You are no longer trying to criticize but can see the good in all people that surround you. Are you ready to possess the inner calm needed to be the guiding light for others?
Take the time to do some thinking now that you have read these sections. It truly does take a village and your teamwork strengths will complement the strengths in others. You don’t need to have the fastest 2k on your team or be a performance leader in order to make an impact on the social dynamics of your team. All too often we see talented teams underperform because the individuals on the team don’t click or exercise compassion for each other. It is also possible that you are reading this and you are not involved in a rowing team, but your career path or job will most definitely involve the principles discussed. Take some time to think about each area outlined above, the principles are universal and can be applied to any team dynamic.
Let me know what you think, I’d love to hear from you. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org