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Lessons from Rowing: Take Responsibility for Sharing Leadership
January 30, 2020
Adam Kreek

Adam Kreek (3rd from left) at the Beijing Olympics in 2008

The command-and-control model of leadership is dead and buried. Leadership is the ability to turn your vision into reality by enlisting the help and winning the hearts of others. It's time to share leadership. It's time to win-together.

The Umpire's robotic voice rang out across the flat water of the rowing basin.

"Netherlands!"

"United States of America!"

"Canada!"

"Great Britain!"

"Australia!"

"Poland!"

The long skinny rowboats each held eight massive rowers and one pint-sized coxswain.

I felt supremely there. The moment was all that mattered. I was consumed by adrenaline and breath. Never have I been more nervous-or more present.

The Olympic final was about to begin.

"Let's go, Kyle," I said, patting his gigantic back.

"Mmmph!" came his reply. Kyle Hamilton didn't need to say much. He was ready.

I turned around, gave Dom Seiterle a fist bump, and looked him in the eye. He was my roommate on the road. We both loved the movie 300 and had watched it together many times. Today we felt like Spartan warriors.

"For Sparta!" we roared.

It was an awkward fist bump. Both our hands were trembling.

"I got your back," I heard Malcom Howard say from five seat.

Bamboo rustled and crickets chirped as our crew prepared to cut through the warm water and the hot, muggy air of Beijing. My lips curled under my gums, baring my teeth, as I glanced at the competition. I bit at the air, taking deep breaths to fill my lungs and body with oxygen. The race of our lives was about to begin.

Over in our bow seat, Kevin Light was breathing heavily and slapping his legs loudly, turning them red. "I know the race will fill my legs with lactic acid and lots of pain, so I'm getting them ready to hurt," Kevin had explained when we compared racing strategies in training. "Then I can push harder and we'll go faster."

Kevin's job in these final moments before the start was to take small strokes to keep our boat pressed against a clear plastic boot that held our bow steady and in perfect position. We were the only team to ensure this pressure would spring us forward after the starting buzzer, giving us an immediate one-inch head-start over the competition.

Our Olympic coach, Mike Spracklen, had drilled a concept of inches into our mind-body-spirit complex. "Inch by inch," he would say in his genteel British accent. "Always be inching!" We trained for years with the hope that our stroke length would be one inch longer than the competition's-always moving ahead.

Before races, our crew would urinate into plastic bottles and dump it into the water. Other more skilled athletes, like Ben Rutledge in two seat, would pee directly into the water. We weren't marking our territory-we were removing four and a half pounds of weight from our boat. A lighter crew means the boat floats higher in the water and leaves less wetted surface area on the hull, thus a faster boat. More inches gained.

The final moments on the start line were surreal. Twelve years of training, 7,200 practice sessions, 13,000 hours of focused training, and more than 2.2 million practice strokes had prepared us for this moment. We were ready. We stared at the red starting light, waiting for it to turn green. Both light and sound start the race and are linked electronically. Our three seat, Andrew Byrnes, had pointed out that the speed of light is faster than the speed of sound. We focused on the light and our crew planned to explode when the color changed. Another fraction of an inch in our favor.

The light flashed green and the buzzer screamed. Every muscle in our bodies engaged. Our bow lunged forward and we gained our first inch. Our oars locked and levered in unison. A cacophony of shouts engulfed us: coxswains yelled at their crews, oars thumped in oarlocks, water frothed and splashed everywhere. The race of our lives was on.

We dug our blades deep into the water to get the hull up to speed, quickly scrambling to a rate of fifty-two strokes per minute. The thirteenth stroke brought it all together; it was the biggest, hardest, longest, and best stroke of the race. We found a good pace, striking at a more manageable stroke rate of forty-six. Adrenaline carries you for the first forty-five seconds of the race, then a searing pain fueled by oxygen debt and lactic acid envelops your body. You want to stop, but to win you must carry on.

The CAN M8+ in Beijing
The CAN M8+ in Beijing

What do you do at this moment of doubt? Our answer: attack! Attack the pain. You gain inches when you take responsibility for the pain. We took ten extra-hard strokes and focused on synchronizing our blades in perfect unison. All our competitors were feeling the same lactic acid burn. We kept attacking. We kept finding inches. We covered the first 500 meters in 1:18.79. Just over four minutes to go. I glanced to my right and saw the Dutch boat with a slight lead on the Americans.

Animal instinct took over. Language was gone; I felt my powerful body on the red line. I was mesmerized by the motion of Kyle's massive back.

We entered the middle thousand, the race from 500 meters to the 1,500-meter mark. We entered into a power-rhythm that inched us slowly away from the competition. Our coxswain, Brian Price, steered a laser-sharp course, and by the 1,200-meter mark, we had open water on the British and Americans. Then both those crews started to move. They were steadily eating away at our hard-earned lead. They were coming back at us!

"Here we go, boys!" Brian yelled. "The money call. Set two. LEGS! Yeaahhh. LEGS!"

To the limit, I thought. I pushed harder-and harder still. I dropped three massive strokes but had given so much power that I lost my focus for a fraction of a second. That's when it happened.

The oar slipped in my hands. We were still rowing at forty strokes per minute. I didn't have time to adjust. My oar went into the water at the wrong angle.

My grip turned from loose and lithe to firm and focused. I ripped the blade through the water at an uneven angle before resetting it in the oarlock for a proper stroke.

"Be present," I said as I forcefully widened my eyes to regain control of the present moment. I had almost lost the race for the team. Brian's voice resumed its proper place as my internal monologue. There was no time for regret, only action. Take responsibility. Do it. Together. Now!

"Right on the blades, boys," Brian called. "Weight on the blade." The boat sang, and speed bubbles ran beneath the hull after each of our powerful finishes.

The finish line was fast approaching. Four hundred meters from the line we had the second-biggest, second-hardest, second-longest stroke of the race, second only to the thirteenth stroke. Both of these one-stroke foci have the same positive outcome: the crew unites. Anyone can commit for one stoke. It's only one stroke. It doesn't repeat. Brian screamed with delight as the boat surged underneath him. We gained another inch.

Then Brian, that sneaky little sadist, pulled a winning trick out of his pocket. He called "Consolidate!" again. And again. Surprisingly, our crew responded. "I've been saving that repeat call for years," he told me after the race. Two more inches.

The final strokes of the race were broken down into power sevens. Simple and vital. Pull as hard as we could for seven strokes, then recommit. Technique didn't matter anymore. Only power.

That's when Brian's voice roared out of the speakers in the hull of our boat. "Come on, boys! Five more strokes and you're fucking Olympic champions!" Much to the chagrin of his mother, Brian swore-a lot. And it worked. Chills ran through my aching, empty body. I found the motivation for five final powerful strokes. I felt the endorphins flooding every last cell in my body. I felt like I could move the world, and at that very moment, I probably could have.

I remember collapsing with exhaustion into the boat then quickly rising with exhilaration.

I just won the Olympics! I thought.

No. It was much bigger than that. We just won the Olympics!

It took 5 minutes, 23.87 seconds, and 220 strokes for our Olympic rowing team to realize our full potential-determined by inches. We won our Olympic race by just over one second. One second is approximately one-third of a boat length. Measured out, that's approximately 220 inches. How many strokes did we take in that Olympic final? 220. We took one inch for every stroke.

Despite that small voice inside screaming Providence!, a 220-inch win after finishing a 220-stroke race will most likely be seen as a coincidence. It's also a powerful metaphor that makes the concept of being responsible for taking on a big challenge inch by inch more resonant. In the race of life, we must share leadership to take both literal and metaphorical gains every stroke forward.

Kreek and his crew share their Olympic success
Kreek and his crew share their Olympic success

WHAT IS SHARED LEADERSHIP?

This concept is self-explanatory: instead of one boss at the top of the hierarchy making all the decisions, vision and influence is distributed to every member of the team. The team has an extreme ownership of group outcomes. Where traditional leadership is static-one person is the leader until they are replaced-shared leadership is remarkably dynamic and powerful.

Shared leadership empowers people within a team to lead one another using their unique areas of expertise.

To use a musical analogy, shared leadership is more like playing in a jazz ensemble and less like playing in an orchestra. Instead of having one supreme conductor, each jazz musician must heighten their skill and concentration to be in tune with the team. As the music evolves and the spirit arises, each member raises and lowers their vision, influence, and contribution to the level the group needs. Leadership is passed around.

Our remarkable win at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games stood in stark contrast to our crushing loss at the 2004 Athens Olympics. While our fifth-place finish wasn't exactly a disaster, it was tremendously disappointing for our team and for Canada, especially after we had won two straight World Championships in 2002 and 2003. Our Beijing crew better executed the shared vision, influence, and onus that makes shared leadership so resilient and powerful.

While there were many reasons for our poor showing in 2004, I believe that much of the blame lay with our traditional, hierarchical approach to leadership. After the Athens debacle, we transitioned to a shared leadership model without significant changes to our administration or team members. Five rowers from our Athens team remained in the Beijing boat, and we maintained the same coach. There was some consistency.

So, what changed?

For starters, one of the worst rowers in our Athens boat improved to become the captain of our team in Beijing. Also, with maturity came the ability to reframe how we gave and received leadership. Our coach's role shifted from that of a supreme leader to that of a sage guide. We embraced his advice and support while focusing on self-direction to become more confident in our individual abilities. Next, our team established a meaningful identity that represented both the collective and individual goals of all members. Finally, all team members assumed more individual responsibility for our successes and failures. We were more resilient.

Criticism came at us from outside the team but inside our team we were strong. Before our Olympic heats and finals, the British were giving us a lot of trouble in the media, with Olympic rowing legend (and one of my personal rowing heroes) Steven Redgrave saying he was offended by our demeanor, calling us cocky and overconfident.

Leading into the 2008 Olympic race, we focused on one another and our shared outcome. I believe it was our strength and internal focus that caused Redgrave and the British team to take offense. They deeply believed they would beat us, while we remained focused on our responsibility to one another and our goal. Our belief and trust in one another caused us to be indifferent to other teams in the Olympic enclosure. Nothing hurts the ego of a competitor like disinterest.

The result? We inched out a Gold Medal Moment.

ESTABLISH A CULTURE OF LEADERSHIP

A dhared leadership style flows from commitments made at the top. Leadership that holds a strong bias to hierarchy and status is waning. Our modern world is becoming more complex and nuanced and we need more collaborative leaders who believe in distributing control and direction, sharing it at all levels of an organization.

Before I trained under Mike Spracklen and after a year-long drilling-rig sabbatical in the frozen north of Canada, Howie Campbell welcomed me to the University of Victoria Vikes rowing program. Originally from Saskatchewan, Howie became one of the strongest builders of the sport in Canada. Among many other accomplishments, including a great salt and pepper beard, he helped found the Canadian University Rowing Championships and the legendary Brown Cup duel race between the University of British Columbia and UVic. While I attended UVic, our men's eight won two Canadian University Rowing Championships and two Brown Cups. Many great athletes who rowed under Howie eventually found international suc-cess, winning medals at World Championships and competing at the Olympics.

Howie led as a coach and shared leadership in subtle ways. For example, he always referred to us as men: "Men, it's time to launch the coach boat." "Men, today's practice is 110 minutes of steady state rowing." "Men, you need to improve your bladework."

Calling us men had a remarkable effect. Many of us still saw ourselves as boys, and Howie's choice of words acted as a prompt to come of age. We were no longer children.

Some leaders are scared to lose top talent. In business, the manager doesn't want their top performer promoted for fear of lowered results. Not Howie. He always gave his athletes a push to step up and out: "It's bad for the program if you leave to train with the national team but I want to see you succeed." By letting go of control, Howie was sharing leadership and for this I will always be grateful.

CREATE A TEAM OF LEADERS

Mike Spracklen often said that success in high-performance sport is "90 percent athlete and 10 percent coach." It wasn't until our team's massive failure in Athens that I truly began to understand the meaning of our coach's words. Our team had trained as hard as humanly possible-three times per day, six days per week, fifty weeks per year. We had followed and believed deeply in Mike's coaching abilities and philosophy. We had a truly great leader and a team eager to be led. Yet we crossed the finish line a dismal fifth, well below our potential and expectations. Something was missing. When the going got tough, our model collapsed.

Our Athens crew had the first half of shared leadership-a strong, mutual vision with a team extremely committed to the outcome. However, our Athens crew lacked the second half-the ability to share influence.

One leader alone cannot carry a team through adversity. Team members need to embrace and embody the leader's wisdom, while accessing their own deepest knowledge and using their voices to influence the team.

Mike was a powerful leader, who was easy to follow. He offered a vision of excellence and shared it through tough and brutally honest empathy. He intuitively understood the balance between emotional support and pushing athletes hard. If someone pushes you all the time, you learn to ignore the influence; if you are coddled, you never grow. Instead, Mike used his intuition and experience to gauge whether we were truly struggling and needed support or if we needed the firm hand of encouragement.

At first, this method created a culture where the athletes felt secure with Mike's leadership yet insecure within their roles on the team. Mike believed the boat is always open, so you could be cut from the top team at any time. Therefore, we became hyper-dependent on Mike's leadership.The nature of life is insecure and unpredictable. Our drive for security can blind us from our ability to take personal action. As each of us on the team matured, we realized how we could create more security by taking more personal responsibility for the influence we individually had over the coach and the rest of our teammates.

Slowly and steadily, over a period of four years, our team adopted and perfected shared leadership. We learned to speak up more. We exercised and strengthened our opinion muscles. We learned to better challenge the coach and each other in constructive ways. Inch by inch, we strengthened trust. We transitioned from a team led by one strong and supreme leader to a boat full of interdependent leaders. Our coach became a vital guide-someone eager and able to enhance the skills and knowledge of our team, challenge us regularly, and develop unique leadership traits in each of us.

An environment of shared leadership becomes apparent when everyone on a team or in an organization commits to having zero excuses for negative results and takes 100 percent responsibility for success and failure. Employee engagement expert Dr. John Izzo calls this the 0/100 rule, whereby everyone is a positive, optimistic initiator. Everyone will step up when they see an action that needs to be taken and they will speak up. Everyone listens. Everyone is a constructive collaborator.When we crossed the finish line as gold medalists, our shared leadership philosophy blossomed into its ultimate expression: shared victory.

For active participants in the process of leadership, the rewards of victory feel much more significant.

Any team, business, and even family that's willing to become more knowledgeable and capable and that actively shares the power of leadership in the pursuit of shared ideals will taste the sweetness of shared victory.

At the National Training Centre, we built our identity around this shared goal: to be the fastest in the world. A high-level goal was specifically chosen so that all aspects of our lives could align behind it. In addition, each member of our team had the individual drive to maximize his own potential. This is what I call finding the sweet spot-the place where an individual's goal coincides with a team goal or a value held by broader society. Leaders who see the power in sharing recognize that personal ambitions must align with the group's objectives.

TEACH THE ESSENTIALS
All great leaders, from seasoned pros to rookies, are already adept at the set of skills you need to share with your team.

  1. Delegate. To realize your full leadership potential, you must effectively delegate responsibility for completing assignments, along with the authority necessary to get the job done well. This boosts your team's collective confidence, leadership, and work skills. Whenever you prepare to take on a new task or assign-ment, make a point of asking yourself whether one of your team members is better suited to do it instead. If you can't work any harder or smarter, start training your team and sharing your leadership in ways that provide them with the skills and confidence they need to step up. Many hands make light work.
  2. Reflect responsibility. When you are the leader or the expert on your team, people often come to you with questions. While this can likely make you feel valuable and needed, your team's questions steal time from other projects and commitments. So, instead of giving answers immediately, make a habit of asking, "What do you think?" or "You tell me: what direction should we take?" You'll be surprised at how smart and resourceful your team can become when you encourage deeper thinking, instead of just answering every question yourself. And when they are right, acknowledge their brilliance.
  3. Set goals. The essence of business is setting goals and then working to achieve them. Indeed, if there are no goals, or goals are not communicated effectively, then your team will never know if they are doing what you want them to do-and neither will you. Goals give teams direction and purpose, and they ensure that your teams work toward the larger goals of the organization. These may include creating a new product, achieving a certain level of profit, becoming a big player in a new market, making a positive difference in the community, or any number of others. Share the development of goals with your people and then ask them to regularly report their progress.
  4. Communicate effectively. With all the on-demand information and communications technology available to us today, there are more reasons than ever for team members to communicate with their bosses, their coworkers, and their customers, clients, and communities. Take time to clarify how your team uses email, for instance. Are you short and to the point? Is context and politeness expected? Do you cover multiple subjects in one email or do you send several? What is appropriate to address with text messages? Which subjects require a phone call or a face-to-face conversation? Do you use tools such as Slack, Trello, Asana, Hallwaze, or other cloud-based communication and project man-agement programs? If so, are you using them to their fullest? To avoid constant interruptions in your work day, communicate with your team at regular intervals. Beyond your annual meetings, have daily huddles, weekly meetings, monthly reports, and quar-terly reviews.
  5. Have faith in your team. Shared leadership is people work. No team member comes to work saying, "I want to do a bad job today." Everyone wants to do well and to be recognized by their manager for doing a good job. While your organization may have once depended on your technical skills and expertise, your ability to lead a team of leaders is now the priority. You extend your leadership and multiply its impact when you share it with your people and make them leaders, too. Have faith in your team members' abilities to contribute. By doing so, not only do you demonstrate to your team members that you value them, but you will really hear what they have to say. When you share leadership with others, explain to them the importance of starting conversations with the right heart-set.
  6. Encourage learning. Every team, no matter how talented or meticulous, makes mistakes. What separates good teams from not-so-good teams is their ability to learn from their mistakes. The best leaders create an environment where teams are willing to take leadership roles and to risk the possibility of failure in the process-and learn valuable lessons. To progress, teams and leaders must share the responsibility of risk, learn from their mistakes and failures, and then try again. An environment of shared leadership is psychologically safe, allowing failures to be discussed openly for the sake of team and organizational improvement.
  7. Go for lasting solutions. Most leaders are proud of their ability to fix problems quickly and decisively. Unfortunately, while the quick fix might indeed be quick, in many cases it's not built to last. When major surgery is called for, a Band-Aid just won't do. When you share leadership with others, explain the importance of look-ing at the entire system to find the cause of a problem, especially one that is ongoing and persistent. Teach them that it's best to deal with the cause of the problem, not just treat the symptoms.
  8. Get coached. Being a leader is serious business but not to the extent that you should burn out doing it. If you are feeling stuck or in a rut, reach out and find a professional coach who can help you to realign. You and your people spend about one-quarter to one-third of your lives at work. Hiring a coach will make your time on the job more pleasant for you, your colleagues, and employees. Moreover, you'll up your personal performance and achieve more impressive results.

GET BUY-IN

There are many arrows in the quiver of an effective team. However, there is one ingredient that is always missing from teams that fail: buy-in. Everyone who shares leadership on the team must fully commit to the goals of the team. This means full emotional, energetic, and physical participation in the team objectives, while constructively expressing your individual voice of reason. Those who moan, complain, and do not buy in must be listened to carefully, then coached up or coached out of the organization.

Time after time, I see overconfidence and personal pride destroy a team's potential. Your ideas are only valuable if they are good enough to be adopted by your teammates. If your opinions are rejected, let the ideas go. Here's a mantra all teams should adopt: "If you wanna win, you gotta buy in." Sharing leadership in this way is an active choice and can be difficult. Buy-in makes you vulnerable to influence. It requires you to check your ego at the door. You lose some control, because of the close bonds your team now holds. You need to let go of ideas from previous teams and outsiders. Your ego grows to envelop the group. You now share a group ego, and when someone attacks your colleague, you are offended.

As in sports, team members must make this vow: "I choose to commit 100 percent to the philosophy, goals, and outcomes of my team. I commit to my role on this team and have zero excuses for my result."

Team members build skills to optimize their contribution. This also means listening to and trusting the boss, as well as listening to your teammates and trusting them. You must distance yourself from the opinions of people outside your team who do not see the full picture. The media, parents, friends, social media, and armchair quarterbacks all have opinions that can disrupt buy-in.

If your team has strong buy-in, your quiver will hold an arrow, sharp and true, to fire whenever you need it.

STRENGTHEN YOUR ETHIC
Sharing leadership with the members of your team isn't an easy thing to do the first time. Leaders typically think their job is to make all the decisions. This is a mistake. The more broadly you share your leadership vision and influence with competent individuals, the more effective you and your organization will be. Ask yourself:
  • What can I do right now to promote my team's buy-in to the vision?
  • What can I do to increase the amount of leadership influence I share?
  • In what ways will I encourage others to become leaders, and how will I reward them for stepping up?

Take at least one point from below. You can circle it, take a picture, or write it down somewhere else. Embrace the Responsibility Ethic and apply this lesson to your life.

  1. Share vision and share influence with a skilled, diverse team.
  2. Share leadership.
  3. Find the extra inch.
  4. Try motivating others with a nicely placed F-bomb.
  5. Encourage learning on your team.
  6. Assume full responsibility for the successes and failures of your team.
  7. Find the sweet spot where personal and group success overlap.
  8. Share victory.
  9. Try passing leadership around in the way that a highly tuned jazz ensemble passes the lead melody.
  10. Give zero excuses; take 100 percent responsibility.
  11. Embrace a group ego.
  12. Share your positive energy.
  13. If you wanna win, you gotta buy in.

#ResponsibilityEthic


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