By way of background, she coxed all four years of high school and now she’s on the Ohio State crew team as a freshman (and as an FYI, Ohio State is the reigning NCAA champion in women’s rowing). For the uninitiated, the coxswain is the tiny person in the front or back of the boat who steers, calls cadence, and runs the boat. Essentially they’re the informal leader in that 9 person organization (the boat has 8 rowers and a coxswain in it).
I’ve shared leadership lessons from a coxswain before based on my observation of her at a high school regatta. As she’s grown as a coxswain and a leader, I thought it would be a good time to sit down with her and find out what she’s learned about leading her peers. Our discussion follows. After each of her answers, I’ve shared some thoughts too on how you can take those lessons back to your organization if you’re in a role that requires you to lead your peers.
What’s the most challenging aspect of leading peers?
Finding the balance between being a coach of my peers but not overstepping any boundaries, picking on people and being seen as being bossy are big challenges. For example there is this one girl on my team who did poorly in a scrimmage and we lost all our races as a boat. She’s one of the faster girls on the team and I was regularly correcting her during another part of the practice trying to get her to fix her technique. Eventually I got frustrated and went from being more supportive and coaching her to being really direct because I was frustrated. That approach didn’t work very well because both of us got frustrated. What I learned is in those situations, I should go to my coach to have him intervene and provide coaching rather than trying to fix it after I get frustrated.
Mike’s thoughts: It’s a fine line when you lead peers. Know when you’re about to cross that line into being bossy and instead seek to involve your boss or another influential stakeholder to provide the required coaching, feedback and guidance. Once you’re branded as “bossy” it’s hard to get over that.
When you need help, what’s the best way to involve your boss (coach)?
My coach makes it easy for us to involve him. What’s best is to go to him in person and give him the correct context as to what’s going on. Once he has that context, he can take appropriate action. Like at the beginning of this season I went to him and asked him for additional feedback and coaching because he was spending most of his time with other members of the team. I told him specifically the areas I wanted feedback on so he could focus on those things and make suggestions about how I could improve. He then took the time to look at those things and help me improve on them.
Mike’s thoughts: You’re not on an island. Just because you’ve been appointed as the team leader, don’t feel like you can’t ask for coaching and guidance yourself. Seek out feedback as required. At the worst, you’ll learn you’re doing a great job or your boss will tell you that you’re doing fine. At best, you’ll get some great suggestions on areas you can improve rather than going along with huge performance blind spots.
What are some of the best ways to inspire your teammates?
In high school, I usually looked at who we were competing against in upcoming races. I would remind my teammates about times we had lost to those teams and create a team goal for winning this time around. It was about creating a shared goal for the team, working hard together, and keeping them focused on a really important goal. I find that it’s all about learning to love your teammate, working toward a common goal, and whether you hate the other person in the boat with you or not I remind them that they’re working hard for each other.
Mike’s thoughts: One major responsibility you have as a leader is setting a shared goal. It can galvanize your team and also reduce friction between members of the team. If you can help them all realize they’re working toward the same goal and remind them of that regularly, some sources of tension will be eliminated.
How do you bring the team back after failure?
When the team fails, I let everyone have their “moment” to come down after the failure (including giving myself my own “moment”). Once we’ve all regained our composure and have our focus back, I get them to look forward to what we can improve. I tell them “What happened is over. It’s in the past. We can’t change it. We can only fix what we do in the future.” Then I pick one or two things that we need to improve upon and get everyone to focus on improving those items together as a team (rather than trying to improve everything we could work on individually). For example, at one practice we had major issues with one part of our technique. After that part of the practice, I explained to my teammates what I was doing to help fix the issue and I’m doing everything I know to do to help. I asked the coach to help point out that this was a really big issue and we needed to focus on it as a team. After that point was made by the coach and me, they improved dramatically because we focused on that one issue.
Mike’s thoughts: Breathe. Acting hastily during a stressful moment usually yields regrettable results. Once everyone on your team has settled down after a crisis, focus on fixing one or two things. Help them feel success and momentum again rather than trying to fix everything at once and making them feel like failures again when they aren’t able to succeed at all of those things immediately.
How do you overcome the perception that you don’t have to do all the same work as your teammates?
As a coxswain, I don’t work out as much as the rowers do. They’re in awesome cardio shape because of all the rowing. But I do spend a lot of time, energy, and effort working out on my own when they’re at their own cardio workouts. I do this so that when we work out together as a team, I’m able to not only keep up with them on the runs but also to be able to push them. They respect the fact that I’m working just as hard as they are and not just sitting on my butt while they’re out busting theirs. I don’t “just sit in the boat” or “just steer the boat” – I work really hard too and I know they respect that.
Mike’s thoughts: Lead by example. Never be above doing the things all the other members of your team are doing. Being “above” doing the dirty work will earn you nothing but disdain.
Thanks for your time, thoughts, and insights Danielle. I’m incredibly proud of you and the young leader you’ve become. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with my readers. I love you.
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