one-boatAdopting a ‘One Boat’ Mindset Will Carry You Over the Finish Line

To say the odds were against them was putting it optimistically. The year was 1936. A ragtag collection of sons from logging, shipyard, and farming families had made the journey from the University of Washington to the Berlin Olympics to compete in the Men’s eight crew team competition. No one expected them to last or even show well against the British team, which won the double-scull race, and certainly not against the German team, which had just won five straight races. The final race was the last event in the competition. In a steady rain, before 100,000 spectators, the boys from Washington set off. In minutes, not only had they beaten the British, they went on to stun the world by defeating the favored German team.

What was their secret? Balancing the boat and equally valuing every seat, each person doing what’s best for the team while carrying their own load, sharing leadership and staying in sync. In short, they had a “one boat” mindset.

Thinking more about how the 1936 U.S. team rowing won the gold, I realized that there is much to learn about organizational change and transformation from the sport. The reason is that, unlike in other sports, rowing relies on concerted, coordinated effort by people pulling together in the same direction. Rather than star quarterbacks, top scorers, or talented forwards that secure the victory, the small and large actions of each person is what makes or break the team.

We need a similar shift in today’s organizations:

Rather than…

Independent Achiever
Experts and advocates
Analysis of features
Command and control
Influential Leaders

We Need…

Interdependent collaborators
Inquisitive learners
Integration of patterns for future
Multiple perspectives and conversion
Participatory Leaders

Helping organizations make these important shifts is central to my work. To do so, I partner with the creators of The Rowers’ Code, who use the metaphor of rowing for the development of teams to experience new ways of working together. Finding new ways of working together is critical, as these experiences help shift the beliefs and values underlying your organization, making possible the task of cultural transformation.

Here are three tips to help your team, group, or organization make this critical cultural shift, achieve a one-boat mindset, and attain your own “Gold”:

1. Always do what’s best for the team. Being on a winning team means putting the interests of your team in front of your own. Rowing as “one boat” instead of everyone rowing in his or her own direction requires us to commit to the team and its direction.

2. Help employees gain trust in each other. Cultures of great employee engagement are ones in which team members trust and support one another in achieving a common goal. In one unforgettable scene in The Boys in the Boat (Brown, 2014), the story of the 1936 U.S. rowing team, Shorty Hunt says to his teammate, “I got your back, Joe.” That kind of reassurance, especially from peers, is extremely strong, and adds core strength to the team. It was particularly powerful for Joe, who had trouble trusting others. Ultimately, he realized he would never achieve his full potential unless he trusted the other men in the skull. Your people need to have the same trust in each other. An “every man for himself” culture won’t enable your organization to perform better than the competition.

3. Support employee camaraderie and teamwork. When a boat hits its swing, it goes faster at a lower stroke rate than a less united b