This Sport Taught Me to Be a Better Leader

For starters, you can’t win the race alone.

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Aerial-Motion/ Shutterstock
Aerial-Motion/ Shutterstock

Gliding across the glistening Neckar river in a rowing boat on a balmy summer evening is my definition of Zen. The evening sun is reflecting in the water. With rhythmic movements the oars dip into the water and propel the boat forward, making a blissful swishing sound as the boat parts the water. You pass beautiful sceneries of bridges, boats, people picnicking on the riverside, and occasionally, some quacking ducks. Heidelberg’s castle graces the scenery from afar. It’s a picture-perfect moment of calmness, but at the same time, it is a moment of extreme concentration. Your mind and body are laser sharp focused on navigating the boat steadily through the river currents together with your team mates. Rowing is challenging and can be strenuous. The secret behind a rowing team’s elegant movements in unison is training. Often for many years.

I started rowing as a student. Being on the river has always calmed me. Rowing has also taught me some valuable skills and leadership lessons to navigate through a changing work environment.

Some of these lessons have been known for centuries. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, was a passionate advocate for rowing and praised the sport’s ability to instill physical fitness moral values. He pointed out that rowers need energy, initiative, power, and health.[1] 

In recent years, we have seen a new renaissance of rowing, highlighting is mental and physical fitness benefits. These are all qualities that are valued in organizational management theories today, especially for skill building in the digital enterprise. Here are three specific key learnings that have helped me for my career in the technology industry.

You can’t win the race alone
Rowing is a team sport. Yes, you can row in a single scull, but it is more fun to row with others in larger boats, with four or eight rowers. It’s also a lot faster. Like in organizations, collaboration and teamwork are crucial. Harmonious rowing determines the speed, and speed determines the winner in your next race. Getting ahead and meeting your goals is determined by the quality of teamwork, like the harmonious strokes of the oars. This goes beyond skill sets and experience.

At my rowing club, people of all ages and walks of life row together. While we are all different, we have something in common, we all want to move this boat forward. And, no one capsizes the boat, regardless how hot the weather is. You can apply the same principles at work. We have different roles, responsibilities and viewpoints, but we all have a common goal. We have to work together to achieve this goal.

Sometimes you must look back to move forward
When rowing, you sit in the boat facing the stern. This basically means, your back is turned towards the front of the boat. Towards the finishing line. You know the direction, you can gauge the speed, but you don’t have your eyes set on the goal. You must rely on the coxswain to steer you to the finishing line. Not seeing exactly what is ahead of you, is a common situation in the digital enterprise. While we know in which direction we are heading, the waters and currents towards the goal are changing. I found that looking back at what has been achieved so far, helps to understand what it takes to reach the next leg of the journey. Looking back helps to make sense of the past and find the orientation for the future. A good navigator acknowledges the past to find the best path for the future.

Focus on the essential and don’t give up
Most of all, rowing has taught me to clear my mind and concentrate on what’s most important. My mind could wander, especially on a beautiful day, but it’s mostly focused on one thing only: moving the boat with as perfect and harmonious strokes as possible up and down the river. Of course, there is time for laughter and breaks, but working as a team requires focus. It also requires training. Not every day is perfect. You have ups and downs. Rowing requires endurance and building strengths over time. Endurance is one of the most valuable qualities for team building. It’s relatively easy to excite and engage a team in one meeting. But keeping that excitement, going through the ups and downs of a project while keeping the team spirits high and the entire team focused on the end goal is what makes all the difference to succeed.

The most valuable lessons can come from unexpected places. I work in enterprise cloud computing. It’s not only a technology sector that is changing almost as fast as an Olympic record in rowing, it is also an industry that changes the course of other industries and can set new records for business innovation. Focusing on leadership qualities that emphasize collaboration, an open mindset and clear communications can guide your team boat through all types of changing waters to the finishing line.

[1] DRV — Germany Rowing Association, https://www.rudern.de/sportart-rudern/olympische-spiele

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


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