This past week, in and amongst prepping and presenting for BizTrendsLive2021, I've been reading The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
The Boys in the Boat was published in 2013 and follows the real-life struggles and triumphs of the American 1936 nine-man rowing team from Washington State University who brought back the gold medal from the Berlin Olympics.
It is a classic “sports” story, with all the usual lows and highs, but it is much more than that. It is also a contrasting pair of portraits of life in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl America on the one hand and Hitler’s Nazi Germany on the other. In addition, it is a story of unexpected leadership from unlikely characters, the life-art of character itself, and family resilience and reconciliation.
It’s a wonderful book.
What I took out of it though was two things.
Dark clouds, dark parallels
Firstly, how many parallels there are between the 1930s and our own timeline. Particularly, I was taken with just how extreme the climate was.
Despite years of studying history, I have never fully understood just how dramatic the Dust Bowl storms (and the preceding mammoth rainfall seasons) were, nor just how dependent even the richest and most advanced civilisations of the time were on the whims of the weather before I read this book. A literal cloud of darkness gathered over America, at the same time as the ugly (figurative) winds of change blew across Germany, casting a deep shadow over the future of a generation.
The links between our natural, economic and political moods should not be discounted.
Secondly though, I could not help but notice the leadership and teamwork lessons sprinkled throughout the book, as demonstrated by the men who shaped and trained a bunch of working class, depression-era American boys into a world championship team. Particularly, a supporting character stands out, a gentleman by the name of George Yeoman Pocock.
George was a boat builder at Washington State. He had no authority. He was not appointed into any leadership position. But George was a great observer, a deep expert in all things rowing-related, thanks to a lifetime working with and for the world’s top rowers, and a very wise man.
Slowly, as the book unfolds, George becomes an unofficial mentor, coach and life coach to the ‘boys in the boat’ of the book’s title; a kind of real-life Yoda or Gandalf. He helped the team with everything from stroke and form advice though to interpersonal advice. It soon becomes clear that George was an indispensable ingredient in Washington State’s Olympic victory.
However, George’s sage advice could just as well be applied to business as to boating, as these quotes demonstrate:
It is hard to make the boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, 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 you and make you stronger in overcoming them.
One of the first admonitions of a good rowing coach, after the fundamentals are over, is “pull your own weight,” and the young oarsman does just that when he finds the boat goes better when he does. There is a social implication here.
Good thoughts have much to do with good rowing. It isn’t enough for all the muscles of the crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also be as one.
~ George Yeoman Pocock
The lesson here is that anyone who leads is a leader, with or without official designation. Leaders lead. It’s as simple as that.