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Leadership lessons from the bow seat

November 21, 2016

This past month marked the 52nd Head of the Charles regatta in Boston. Some 11,000 rowers came from all over the world to navigate down the windy shores and through the narrow bridges of the Charles River. I, the self-proclaimed novice (who put in several weeks of diligent prep work!), raced in a double (four oars, two people) in the parent-child category with my 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, who is captain of her crew team.

Our team was one of only two mother-daughter boats in the race. We were initially seeded 41st of 48 and finished 30th. Not bad for a new team with a mom who doesn’t get out on the water much! The preparation, planning and execution that we went through together got me thinking about the work that I do with leaders every day. Turns out that this all too common cliché has some merit. Let me explain…

Mindset matters
When we learned about the new parent-child category two years ago, Sophie and I decided it was absolutely something we had to do together. Our goals included getting me in shape after having run a marathon two years previously and not much since. I had to rebuild my strength for a sport that requires short spurts of incredible physical stamina. I even went so far as to attend a week-long sculling camp with my son last summer so that I had confidence in my ability to not catch a crab (when an oar gets stuck in the water because you didn’t rotate your hand properly, and can eject a rower from the boat—it does happen!).

We can do a lot to prepare and bring what we do best when it’s time to show up, but we can’t control the outcome. It‘s all in the preparation and the mindset.

Strategy beats strength
We advanced our ranking thanks to my daughter’s ability to aptly navigate the course from the bow seat. If we tried to compete by simply rowing faster, we would have never come close to finishing as well as we did. Sophie’s ability to navigate the turns shaved minutes off of our overall time. I witnessed what bad steering can do—overshooting corners, extra strokes to make up for wide turns, inefficiencies, more work, more pain—not fun. She enabled us to pass three boats as we were all navigating under one bridge simultaneously and demanded we pull a “power 10” (pull really hard to focus, drive your legs down and pick up speed) just at the right time to catapult us forward with deftness and grace and avoid a near collision.

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You can’t ask for “power 10s” all the time; perhaps the team works late hours or over a weekend when the need has escalated and nothing else will do. Well-timed interventions can help you finish strong. Overcompensating from the driver’s seat doesn’t end well. Strategically planning your course of action with the expectation of stretching yourself and your team makes for a more successful outcome.

Be fearless
In my daily work, I am paid to know, perform and teach others how to do the same. With sculling, I was a rank beginner. Such a humbling position to be in considering my working day is getting paid for what I know versus what I don’t know. Another humbling reality was watching my other child, Jackson, who is 15, pick it up effortlessly while we were at sculling camp together. Within one day he was already in the racing shell while I plodded down Lake Hosmer in a “Tubbie,”—yes, that is what it is called—a shell that is more stable and you can’t tip over. He was challenging his new friends to races and laughing with joy while I tensely worked through each step of the rowing stroke.

Instead of trying to perfect your craft the first time out of the starting gate, focus on practices like being present, asking more questions, thinking about outcomes and letting others decide how to get there. Look for strengths and leverage them. This is not always easy—especially for those of us who always want to get it right.

Letting go
In our case, it was the weather that threw us. Mother Nature brought us gray, overcast skies, lots of wind, rain and white caps. During our warm-up, we focused on getting our minds in the race…our hands moved with ease…we developed a rhythm. We focused on all of the things that we had control over. I thanked my daughter once again for being willing to do this race together and shared just how happy I was to be with her. From there, we let the rest of the experience unfold and surrendered what was out of our control.

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Just like the countless situations we find ourselves in each day, there is only so much we can do. At some point, we have to trust, let go and allow for what will be.

Reflecting back, I realize that my goal was achieved: creating special memories with my grown-up baby girl that will last a lifetime. Sometimes it is the everyday experiences in life that ultimately help us learn and grow in the most remarkable ways.

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