Defining the role of the coxswain: Leadership

It’s election day in the US so talking about leadership seemed like a fitting topic for today’s post.

I came across this blog post from the Harvard Business Review a few days ago that talked about the skills leaders need regardless of where they fall in the hierarchy of their organization. The original question was “are some skills less important for leaders at certain levels of the organization or is there a set of skills fundamental to every level?” and what the researchers found was that instead of there being different sets of “core competencies” for each level of management (ranging from first-time managers to senior executives/CEOs), the skills that were perceived as most important stayed consistent across the board. The conclusion they drew was that as you move up the chain the basic fundamentals aren’t changing but their relative importance does.

The parallels to coxing and the sport might not be exact but they are there so this should give you a good idea of where you can/should focus your energy if you’re an upperclassman who is trying to step it up as a leader on your team or if you’re an underclassman who is taking on your first real leadership position.

For each of the top three skills listed above I’ve included a couple examples below of how you can approach and demonstrate each one with your team and/or boat.

Inspires and motivates others

We all know motivation is a tricky subject for coxswains but the leadership side of it is less about calls on the water and more about how you keep your boat/team striving for more. This starts with being one of the first team leaders to step up and start proposing realistic goals to work towards over the next month, season, and year.

Showing appreciation for your rowers goes a long way too in keeping them motivated, especially in the winter. It’s as simple as sending out a quick group text after a hard workout and saying “you guys crushed it this morning, great job…”.

Keeping everyone focused (and staying focused yourself) on the bigger picture is also key. Put it in the context of doing side-by-side pieces during practice. You have to understand the goal of the workout and know that just straight winning a piece is rarely its entire purpose. The bigger picture is leveraging the technical focuses from that week with the fitness you’ve been developing over the course of the season to see where your speed’s at, amongst other things. You can row well and lose, you can have a good piece and lose, you can row 10x better today than you did yesterday and lose. Don’t let a lost piece derail the practice or kill the energy in the boat. Keep everyone focused by highlighting the improvements you’ve made throughout each piece and noting where you can/need to do better … and then get after it on the next one.

Displays high integrity and honesty

This can be interpreted in two ways. The first is pretty straightforward and has to do with communication. Basically, are you giving your teammates the information they need in a timely and accurate fashion? Between technical feedback, your position, time elapsed, and a whole litany of other things, there’s a lot of information that you’re responsible for passing along to the crew. The more honest you are about what’s going on, the more the crew will trust you and the less backseat coxing (at the very least) you’ll have to deal with.

The second interpretation has to do with how to conduct yourself. Are you showing up to practice on time (and by on time I mean early) every day? Are you putting personal relationships aside and offering constructive feedback to everyone in your boat? Are you matching the effort put in by the rowers both on and off the water in terms of development and becoming more proficient at your job?

Solves problems and analyzes issues

This is where your technical knowledge can be a huge benefit to you. You’ve gotta able to feel what’s going on in the boat and then quickly and decisively translate that to a call that works to improve boat speed. By developing your problem solving skills by way of improving your boat feel, educating yourself off the water on the intricacies of the rowing stroke, understanding the style of rowing your coach is teaching, etc. your calls will become clearer and your command of the crew will improve.

There will also be times where you’ve gotta do some creative problem solving to deal with, for example, a shortened or lengthened warmup time on race day. Being able to shift gears and have a clear plan in mind that you can then communicate to your crew (in a totally chill manner that makes it seem like this was the plan all along) will again only increase their trust in your ability to lead them through adverse situations.

If you’re thinking of doing coxswain evals at any point, this would be a great addition to help give you an idea of what the rowers value when it comes to the coxswain as a team leader. Rather than give them this entire list and have them rank all 16 skills in order of importance, I’d get together with the other coxswains (and your coaches) and collectively decide on five at most that you all think are important and then have the rowers rank them from there. Alternatively, you could pick three and have them rate each coxswain individually on a scale of 1-5 (similarly to how I’ve got other skills set up on the evals we use with our team) to net you some feedback on how you’re doing in those areas and where improvements could be made.

Image via // @remo_boledi

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