What motivates people to go the extra mile? To push themselves harder, dig deeper, and be stronger? To get up every day, to face challenges, and overcome adversity? Maybe it’s about crushing personal barriers. Maybe it’s tied to ego. Maybe it’s about being part of something bigger than just themselves. Or maybe it’s just about being great and about finding success.
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Come with me for a quick trip down to Lake Washington. It’s dark. It’s quiet. There’s a cool breeze. Can you feel the cold air on your face? On your arms? Close your eyes for a moment. You hear a splash, a faint knock of the oarlock, then silence, and another splash. Eight oars break the glassy surface of the lake. As you look east towards Bellevue, you see that dawn is breaking. The boat is perfectly balanced, everyone rowing fluidly and in perfect harmony, you’re gliding through the water and bathed in golden light.
Rowing is a perfect metaphor for the move toward greatness. You’re not a success because you secure a seat on a crew. You go back every day and you have to be willing to fail—again and again—and try—again and again. If you fail fast, get back up, and keep going, you start finding success. Whether you’re leading a global sales team or a crew of Division 1 rowers, being the leader who can inspire and motivate people to work individually and together towards greatness can mean the difference between failure and success.
When I walked onto the University of Washington crew during my freshman year of college, I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into. I come from a family of rowers, and although I had led an active life up to this point, I had little experience with rowing or organized sports. But, I thought, “Hey, this can’t be too hard; I’ll give it a try” without knowing what it meant to row for a Division 1 school. The UW crew is ranked among the best rowing programs in the United States, and the bar was high.
More than 100 young women showed up for tryouts. Some were new to the sport, but many of them were already champion rowers. People dropped like flies the first month. We were sore all over, blisters on our hands were turning into big calluses, and we endured so much yelling that I quickly realized it was going to take much more than just physical prowess to survive.
After three months, about 30 of us remained. There were three boats (eight seats in each boat plus one coxswain to steer the boat). In crew, boats are ranked for racing. The first boat is made of the best rowers on the team. The second boat is next in line, and so on. I barely made the third boat.
I learned many lessons about leadership during my time on the UW crew. I discovered how to dig really deep to persevere. I learned how to trust myself and support others. I figured out how to move from a place of just surviving to thriving, and how to face challenges and not run from them. By January I had secured a seat in the third boat. Just before racing season I had moved up to the second boat. I could pull my weight, I had earned my seat, and I was ready to race.
Here are five of the leadership lessons I learned during my time on crew:
1. Rally around a common goal
That first fall day, people were motivated to show up for different reasons. Some were longtime rowers and this was their natural next step. Others were brand-new to rowing and wanted to try it out. Regardless of our background or what we were doing at UW, one of the things the coaches quickly instilled in us was that this was an elite rowing program. We were going to pay the price of complete commitment, dedication, and very, very hard work. If we made the cut, we’d be among the best of the best in collegiate rowing. We’d be part of something big. I threw myself into what would become the hardest, most challenging, most grueling thing I’d ever done thus far—physically, emotionally, and mentally. The practices pushed us to our limits. I thought about quitting every day for the first few months, but I refused to give up just because it was hard. I believed in the goal. I believed I could be part of something great. I believed we could be great.
A leader’s job is not to tell people what to do. A leader’s job is to inspire people to be the best they can be. Our coaches established a common goal that we could all rally around. We were the UW crew, we were part of a brand, and we were part of a world where you push yourself harder than anyone else, every day. We were part of a team. We had to work together to make that boat go forward. We had to trust each other. And when racing season started, we wanted to know that we’d done everything we could possibly have done to get ready.
2. Facilitate a growth mindset
One day out on the lake, we were working on our feathering techniques—this is when you turn the handle of the oar to drop it into the water at just the right angle and speed. I could not get it right. The coach stopped everyone and called a time-out to yell at me. “I’m totally failing here,” I thought. After that, I spent weeks with an assistant coach on dry land working on that feathering technique. One day I got it, and that was that.
I recently read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. Dweck explains how it’s not just ability and talent that lead to success. It’s the approach of a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed one) that is the crucial differentiator of success. That day in the boat on the lake, I thought “I’m failing!” but I also thought “I’m really trying, and I’m going to figure this thing out!” And I did.
There are many ways to motivate people to work harder, perform better, and deliver more. By focusing on growth—learning from mistakes, overcoming them, and becoming more skilled because of them—leaders have a fantastic opportunity to build talent, to grow their people. By focusing on a growth mindset, they can help change how people approach learning and growing.
3. Build a positive team culture
Before we secured seats in a boat, there was a great deal of competition among the rowers. But when the boats were set, we started harmonizing as teams. Before every race we’d walk through the race plan. The coach would ask us to do a quick round robin on one thing that we were individually going to focus on and do really well. Everyone would chime in with something positive. “You know, I think you’re really strong in the follow-through,” someone might say to a peer. “And you always have great focus before a race. That totally rubs off, it helps us as a team.”
There has been a lot of research on the topic of positive visualization, especially in sports. Visualizing and imagining yourself performing your best can help create a positive outcome. Leaders have an amazing opportunity to not only set the tone through leading by example, but to foster a culture of trust and support. It starts with respect. It means being self-critical, but it also means looking for the positive: what is working, what is going right today? Pointing out what people should keep doing is equally as important as helping them stop doing things that may be holding them back.
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4. Encourage different learning and success styles
One of the ways we measured progress on our rowing team was weekly tests on the ergometer. A “two kilometer” race (or “erg test”) is a sprint: you have to start strong with a high stroke rate, and you pretty much go all out for the duration. I knew it would take me somewhere around seven minutes to “row” the 2k, but it was grueling. Sometimes I closed my eyes because I knew what each “pull” had to feel like. Each pull had to be a little stronger than the previous one—even if you felt like your strength was decreasing! You had to maintain momentum. You simply could not fall back. When I closed my eyes, I could feel exactly where I was. One coach yelled at me. “Why are your eyes closed? If your stroke rate starts slipping, you’re going to have to open them back up.” “Deal,” I replied. I never had to open them up. I finished with a new personal record.
Everyone is different. We all have unique abilities, skill sets, and approaches to how we do things. That is why it’s so great to be on a diverse team: you can learn from each other. People have unique techniques to getting where they need to be. Unless you see something that is holding individuals back, you as a leader can support them in the method they choose to deliver their best work. When you know how people perform their very best, you can support those behaviors. People also feel respected when you show that you understand them.
5. Show people you believe in them
One late fall morning I was having a particularly tough day. I ran down to the boathouse in the dark, through high winds and pouring rain. It was getting close to finals week and we were all tired. The whitecaps prevented us from heading out on the lake that day, so we were in the boathouse on the ergometers doing time trials. I didn’t want to be there, and the assistant coach picked up on it. She took me aside. “I believe in you,” she said quietly. “I know you can do this and I want you to be ready for racing season. You’re doing great. Keep going.” I felt a spark of motivation that day—a different kind of motivation. Someone else believed in me.
Do you ever find yourself seeing potential in someone and wanting to develop that potential? You know that feeling when you encourage people and you not only see a spark in their eye but see them taking charge of delivering? Sometimes, all it takes is a little nudge or a friendly piece of advice and coaching. Letting someone know they are not alone—and that you want them to succeed—may be all they need to go that extra mile. “Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports,” says Daniel James Brown, quoting George Yeoman Pocock, a master craftsman and boat builder, in The Boys in the Boat. “Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance. The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body.”
Crew is an incredibly challenging sport, but it is also filled with grace and beauty. We had a fantastic racing season, and the lessons I learned are with me every day as I pursue my career, as I work with a large and diverse team, and as I coach and mentor others to find greatness. I still carry with me inspiration from my coaches and teammates. And that, I think, is the key to motivating others: being that leader who can not only forge a team under the toughest of conditions, but instill lessons that last a lifetime.