Leadership from Boys in the Boat – Part II of II

In Part I, I pointed out some heroes and leaders of the 1936 Olympics – the Games of the XI Olympiad.

In Part II, I am focusing on Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat, which is focused on the 1936 University of Washington (UofW) Crew Team and their conquest of Germany’s renowned crew team. UofW Crew teams win was a major contribution toward a world-wide effort to spoil Hitler’s attempts of domination in the 1936 Olympics.

The Big Bang theory doesn’t apply to leadership and teamwork. While some team members are more charismatic than others, with higher levels of skills and traits than others, coaches, mentors and relationship-builders develop leadership, teamwork skills and behaviors toward excellence. These traits are part of Brown’s book.

Each chapter begins with a quote by George Pocock around which Brown focuses throughout the chapters. Many of Pocock’s quotes speak to some aspect of leadership, teamwork and individual characteristics.

I have been a team-member of several organizations, civic groups and sports teams. Rowing, or crew as it is called, truly defines the rhythm, work ethic, trust, and teamwork required for real excellence. Pocock points this out in his quote on Page 1 of Brown’s book:

“In a sport like this – hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century – well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can’t see, but extraordinary men do” (Brown, 2013, p. 1).

George Yeoman Pocock, born in England, whose Father and Grandfather were boat-builders, was the “shell builder” at UofW and whose boats were used by nearly every college crew coach in the U.S., and many internationally. Beyond shell building however, he was a integral part of “UDub” (another nickname of UW) crew team as a mentor and untitled teambuilding coach. His presence is noted by Brown throughout the book. Pocock’s importance to the crew team is documented by his quotes in the book, and by his personal mentoring to the “Boys”, most especially Joe Rantz. Chapter 1 begins with the following Pocock quote:

“I believe I can speak authoritatively on what we call the unseen values of rowing – the social, moral, and spiritual values of this oldest of chronicled sports in the world. No didactic teaching will place these values in a young man’s soul. He has to get them by his own observations and lessons” (Brown, 2013, p. 7).

So it is with leadership as well. No leader of such qualities and values is born, each must learn these and other traits and characteristics through experience, classes, leadership mentoring and training, and individual research and reading.

Quest and Foundation of Leadership and Teamwork

John Maxwell says, “The true measure of leadership if influence, nothing more, nothing less” (Maxwell, 2007, p. 11). Row coach Ulbrickson and Shell-builder Pocock epitomized Maxwell’s philosophy.

Leadership and teamwork is about assembling the best team members. Ulbrickson noted:

“The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the nearly super-human stamina, the indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of the technique (of rowing). And which of them, coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales*, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat” (Brown, 2013, p. 23).
* sides or walls of the boat

This is true not only of teamwork in general, but also of the individual quest for achievement overall. Each team member must put the team first, others first, and put aside personal aspirations for the sake of the team.

Just as every organization has people assigned to leadership position, so also does that same organization have leaders throughout who can and should become mentors to other people in the organization – known leaders and others aspiring for leadership. Such was the case with George Pocock.

Pocock’s influence, while not directly as a coach, was instrumental as a mentor to the boys who came to talk with him, to learn about the boat, and in the case of Joe Rantz, to seek guidance and inspiration from his wisdom about life, rowing, and teamwork. Being an effective mentor takes time and experience observing work ethics, studying habits and actions, and one-on-one counseling, listening to thoughts, declarations, and confessions of strengths, weaknesses and shortcomings.

Pocock’s mentorship evolved in this manner as he learned about the intrinsic values of crew oarsmen:

• Seeing hope where the men saw none;
• Seeing skill that was overshadowed by ego or anxiety;
• Detecting the strength thread of affection between team members as it grew between the oarsmen who were striving to do their best; and most importantly,
• How the bond of trust between crewmembers, if nurtured properly, could coalesce a team of individuals into one team – so in tune with their environment that would replace the pain of their efforts with ecstasy.

So effective was Pocock’s mentorship to the Boys that throughout his tenure at Washington, he became, as Brown points out in the book, their high priest. In later years hundreds would comment, “In his presence Washington crewmen always stood, for he symbolized that for which God’s children always stand” (Brown, 2013, p. 48).

Vision & Motto

Vision provides the inner impetus for wining; it is recorded countless time in leadership writing of success stories of winning organizations. The Vision becomes the motivation for external followership and support as well. If one follows winning sports teams or successful organizations, a Vision becomes the “Why” of existence and drive to excel. So it was with the Washington crew as well.

Ulbrickson laid out the crews vision on January 14, 1935 in the shell (boat) house following a shivering day on the water. At this point Washington crew was the West Coast champion of rowing after beating the best school in California and on the East Coast of Ivy League schools. He declared, “At one time or another, Washington crews have won the highest honors in America. They have not, however, participated in the Olympic Games. That’s our objective” (Brown, 2013, p. 149).

Earlier in 1934 a freshman coxswain had come up with the motto “M-I-B” to help them keep focused on their rowing. M-I-B meant “Mind in Boat” to remind them from the time the get into the boat until they cross the finish line that they must remain focused on what was taking place in the boat. That they must block out the outside world and focus on their small space between the gunwales, only hearing the smooth interaction between the oars and the water, and listening intently to the coxswains commands.

This motto combined with the team’s acceptance of Ulbrickson’s vision declaration provided the motivation to push forward for improvement and winning the Olympics.

When fully ingrained and accepted by the team it produces another aspect of rowing that can be felt by everyone that is hard to achieve and equally hard to define. It is called rhythm and other names. In rowing, it is called the “swing” of the boat. In a crew boat, and as I have seen in sports and work center teams, it happens when all oarsmen (team members) are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of sync with those of all the others. (Brown, 2013, p. 161).

This is what I call the “fun” of working toward a vision and mission, when completed it provides the intrinsic reward that is everlasting and comforting. When a leader does happen to experience such a phenomenon, the external joy becomes an intrinsic reward that is infinite in memory.

Humility

John Maxwell says this about humility, “You have a lot less fullness of yourself, so that you can focus on the other person, their needs, their journey, their life. Not what you have done, but focus on who they are and what you can do for them. They don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less” (Maxwell, 2015). So it was with George Pocock:

“My ambition has always been to be the greatest shell builder in the world; and without false modesty. I believe I have attained that goal. If I were to sell the (Boeing) stock, I fear I would lose my incentive and become a wealthy man, but a second-rate artisan. I prefer to remain a first-class artisan” (Brown, 2013, p. 83).

He never sought the spotlight with the Washington Crew. He quietly built his shells, quietly observing and mentoring when needed, becoming a humble force for the Crews 1936 conquest of the greatest rowers in the world.

Humility can be very motivating. Following his building of a new boat they would race in 1934 to further solidify their Olympic quest, as the crew was holding up the boat, Pocock pronounced, “I christen this boat Husky Clipper. May it have success in all the waters it speeds over. Especially in Berlin.” As the Boys carried the boat to the water, they wondered what was the odd smelling liquid with which Pocock had christened the boat. Pocock chuckled, “Sauerkraut juice. To get used to Germany.” He grinned. (Brown, 2013, p. 240).

Life sometimes teaches this important leadership trait. Especially, when the team members grew up in hard times like the boys in the boat, who had experienced the great depression. They took nothing for granted, never letting their accomplishment enroute to the Berlin Olympics blind their intention and vision. These challenges that taught them humility – the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole. It became the driving force that brought them together (Brown, 2013, p. 241).

These are just a few of the many leadership lessons taught in Brown’s Boys in the Boat. I strongly recommend that you get a copy for your own reading and edification. I assure you that it will be a ready reference to which you will often refer.

In the mean time, “Keep the Quest Alive! for improved leadership and making a difference in the lives of those you lead.

Endnotes:

1. Brown, Daniel James, (2013). The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and their Epic Quest
for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. New York: Penguin Books.
2. ibid, P7.
3. Maxwell, John C., (2007). The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas
Nelson.
4. Brown, Daniel James, (2013). The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and their Epic Quest
for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. New York: Penguin Books.
5. ibid, P48.
6. ibid, P149.
7. ibid, P161
8. Retrieved from A Minute of Maxwell on 1/24/2016 from http://johnmaxwellteam.com/humility/.
9. Brown, Daniel James, (2013). The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and their Epic Quest
for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. New York: Penguin Books.
10. ibid, P240.

11. ibid, P241.

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