Row, row, row your boat…to leadership

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard some long-time friends speak enthusiastically about the lessons they learned from rowing when they were in college.  I’ve learned a lot, and I look forward to learning a great deal more.

These friends were prompted to share their stories because I was bragging about the success of the Humboldt State University women’s rowing team.  The women have just won their second national NCAA Division II championship in three years, bringing HSU its fifth national title in athletics.  I remembered that both these women had rowed when they were in college.  And when I asked them about that experience, each lit up and began talking about the importance of rowing in their lives.  

Barbara, who now lives in Atlanta, rowed in Pennsylvania in college.  She loved the team dynamics, the collaboration that makes the efforts work, and the friendships that she made.  She learned about the importance of having the right people in the right position, and she learned that she could make the greatest contribution in the middle of the boat.  She realized how a single person who was out of rhythm with the rest of the group could profoundly detract from the group’s effort.   And she learned the feeling of power in her own contributions.  (She also learned the importance of not allowing herself to be distracted by her deep love of birdwatching.)

Barb’s husband describes, in vivid detail, trying to photograph her as she participated in the Head of the Charles, with one photo as her boat went under a bridge…and his courageous (or foolish) dash across multiple lanes of Boston traffic to catch her on the other side.  (He survived — and got the photo.)

Nancy, who now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, rowed at Princeton.  She discovered the feeling of strength and power that derive from the personal fitness required to engage in the sport.  She understood the importance of working together, of following the cox’s directions, and of sharing a goal.  Rowing provided a rhythm in her life — she knew where she would be every afternoon at the same hour, practicing.  

Her most memorable rowing experience was one afternoon when she and another team member had a near-perfect run.  They moved across the lake as though they were flying.   Decades later, she speaks of that afternoon as though it were yesterday.  The experience was no less impressive for having had no witnesses to the event.  The exhilaration was internal, personal, and powerful.

Rowing clearly offers many lessons in collaboration, in teamwork, and in leadership.  I can’t wait to learn more from the women’s rowing team at Humboldt State.




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