5 Team Lessons From The Boys In The Boat

In August 1936, just outside Berlin, Germany, swarms of people gathered for the chief competition of the Olympic rowing races: the men’s eight. The host country had won more medals than any other and looked to continue their preeminence in the final event. As Adolf Hitler viewed the contests with Nazi pride, nine boys from the state of Washington prepared to row the most important race of their lives. Their story presented by the “American Experience” program on PBS showcases an epic quest that can teach everyone, but especially entrepreneurs, business leaders and their organizations a lot about building teamwork and high performance. Legendary racing shell builder George Pocock is the spiritual shaman of the story.

Lesson One: A Great Team Must Have A Vision And Purpose

As a leader, it is your charge to communicate a shared purpose and vision with your team. To inspire them to make it a reality no matter the challenges or defeats along the way. When you create a team of like-minded and skillful people, achievements occur.

“It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy is the resistance of the water… But that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support and make you strong in overcoming them.” -Pocock

Lesson Two: Overcoming Hardship Makes The Team More Powerful

Whether you are Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, for example, no great accomplishments happen without overcoming obstacles and failures along the way. Each time a team prevails, it gets stronger and more effective.

“Rowing a race is an art… rowed with head power as well as hand power… all thoughts of the other crew must be blocked out. Your thoughts must be directed to you and your own boat.” -Pocock

Lesson Three: Mastery Comes From Concentration

The Boys In The Boat had an acronym they recited to themselves: MIB, “Mind In Boat.” Why? If you have every rowed, you know that if you take a quick peek at the boat crew next to you to see if you are beating them, you have already lost. This is a truism is business as well. Keep your focus you your activities and also where your customer/client is going. When you concentrate to much on your competition, you jeopardize your own journey of distinction.

“Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports. 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.” -Pocock

Lesson Four: Do Not Micromanage

Provide coaching, guidance, inspiration, and leadership at the start and when required. But give people responsibility while the race is occurring. Let them drive themselves to their own limits. This will enable them to be the best they can be. Just as in business, give your people visibility and alignment to the strategic plan and permit them to execute it with excellence.

“A boat is a sensitive thing, an eight-oared shell, and if it isn’t let to go free, it doesn’t work for you.” -Pocock

Lesson Five: Plan, Execute, Monitor, Repeat

A team that plans effectively, and executes well against plan, becomes a powerful force that will surely accomplish objectives and wins over and over again. When you create and trust a team to do this, there are no boundaries in what they can achieve by collaborating together.

“To be of championship caliber, a crew must have total confidence in each other… confident that no man will get the full-weight of the pull…” -Pocock


Whether an oarsman in a “crew” or a business leader, entrepreneur, or professional, it is important to develop clear understanding and articulated vision, purpose, and mission in order to build the relationship capital that enables high performing team. Your mission is how you plan to get to there. Make the right promises/commitments to yourself and to your team and not only will you achieve high performance, but you will be an example by which your team will follow and go the extra mile to keep their promises that deliver results in the right ways. These lessons from the Boys In The Boat as well George Pocock’s words continue to have relevance and teach us how to build and be part of a high performing team. They inspire all of us in business to be our very best because we are all in the boat together.


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