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What we can learn about leadership from teenage athletes

Today I had the pleasure of spending a glorious day on the Ross River watching an amazing number of teenage athletes battle it out at the annual Head of the River Rowing Regatta.

I have been a rowing mum for five years now. That is a lot of regattas, blisters, early mornings and wet stinky zooties. I love the rowing culture and I love the discipline and comradeship that my daughters have been fortunate to have as a part of their schooling.

Today looking around at the smiling athletes, parents, volunteers and coaches I felt an energy and noticed perhaps for the first time what a positive analogy it was for business.

I came to an epiphany. These kids really know leadership and many in business could learn a lot from stepping away from their desks and coming down to watch these fantastic kids and their coaches for a regatta or two.

Team1 .jpg Lesson 1: Lead by Example: Leadership is a behaviour not a title.  Every single athlete today from the year 7 babies to the departing seniors and coaches is a leader and a role model. They support each other, lead by example, champion the trier and lift the broken body collapsed on the floor.

The values and principles, group norms, the level of quality expected and the work ethic is emulated by every single person there. There is no confusion as to what is expected as their teammates are  showcasing it at every regatta, boat loading and unloading and training session.


Lesson 2: Trust and Cooperation is Key: Simon Sinek in his book Leaders Eat Last explores why some teams pull together and flourish and others do not. At the core in highly effective teams is the unshakeable principles of trust and cooperation. The level of mutual dedication, care and concern between the students and their coaches and each others emulates the deep principles of effective teams. Statistically it is more likely that an employee will leave a job because of a manager than the job itself means that there are quite a lot of really bad managers out there. Yet, the fact that 100’s of young and not so young leaders have authentically and naturally established a group dynamic that fosters trust and cooperation to such a deep level is remarkable.


Lesson 3: Courage to get back up: Success comes from the ability to get a knock down and get back up again. Whether it was today or last year every single athlete there has had a terrible time, has failed and seen someone else get the dream medal that they were hoping for. But they have kept going and that means something. In life and in career where emotional intelligence and resilience are greater determiners of success than talent or IQ the ability to get back up after a set back, learn from the lesson and try again is worth gold.

socks.jpgLesson 4: Intrinsic Motivation is the best carrot you will ever find : Ironically the book I was reading today under the shade of a paper bark tree in between races was called DRIVE: The Surprising truth about what motivates us. In this book I explored the concept that intrinsic motivation or the joy of the task is its own reward is real. While for sure every athlete there today converted a medal not one was motivated primarily by the medal. I saw  no animosity or negative behaviour when a medal wasn’t won or hostilities between schools. Rather the joy and the motivation was in the competition and pushing themselves to their limits.

My daughter had her last schools regatta today after five years. I know that the lessons that she has learnt through rowing will provide her with an amazing head start when it comes to working effectively in a team and maybe being a manager some day.

Often my friends say I am a little mad to have two rowers in the family. But I think every rowing parent on days like today seeing the leadership skills that our kids are developing know it is 100% worth it.



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