Ricky Robinson
Real-life case studies have lessons to teach us in business and in life. Based on the book, The Boys in the Boat, we take out lessons on how to build great teams that can weather, and succeed in, tough times.


The story

In The Boys in the Boat: An epic journey to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin (Pan Books, 2014), Daniel James Brown recounts the true story of how a rowing team from the then obscure University of Washington in Seattle beat off all competitors to gain the right to represent the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

The story uses one of the rowers, Joe Rantz, as the focus for telling this story. America was in the grip of the Depression, and there was widespread poverty. Rantz was abandoned (twice!) by his family mostly for financial reasons and had largely brought himself up. A rowing scholarship was the only way he could possibly afford to attend university.

The book details the gruelling training regime needed to make the team in the first place, to win the American inter-varsity competition, and then to achieve the audacious goal of winning the Olympics. It emphasises the point that rowing is perhaps one the most demanding sports because each rower has to perform not only at his peak but also in perfect harmony with his team-mates. Individual excellence is necessary but not sufficient; it must be integrated into a whole whose sum is greater than its parts.

The essential contribution from the coach and other mentors is also highlighted. The university rowing coach, Al Ulbrickson, was an exceptional tutor and a man with big ambitions. He set them the goal of beating arch-rivals the University of California and then securing the honour of representing the United States at the Berlin Games. Ulbrickson’s technical and leadership skills were complemented by the insights offered by George Pocock, recognised as one of the best boat-builders in the country. Pocock displayed an uncanny ability to understand what made the rowers, particularly Joe Rantz, tick at a personal level, and was able to help them resolve the personal issues that were impeding their performance.

The American nation gets behind the team, in part because it offers a glimpse of hope in the fifth year of the Depression, and in part because winning at the Olympics was seen as a symbolic blow to the toxic combination of racism and socialism embodied in Nazism.

The climax of the book is the winning of the race itself. It is nail-biting stuff: the stroke and team captain came down with pneumonia on the boat over and had to row while weak and running a high fever. To add to the tension, the US team was placed in the most unfavourable lanes by unscrupulous administrators. But, against all these odds, the team managed to cross the winning line first.

The lessons for business

The team is everything – and bring your everything to the team.

For businesses, perhaps the central message of The Boys in the Boat is the almost uncanny power of a team. It is very hard to get a group of individuals working together as a single unit, but the effort is worth it: the team delivers exponentially better results than a series of individuals would.

Creating a good team depends on many factors, but the major ones could be listed as:

Get the right people into the team and have them in the right roles.

It is important to have people of the highest calibre on the team – team members must be particularly skilled and gifted in the role that they are chosen to perform. The trick is to identify what those skills are, and then help the individuals continue to hone them. It is also very important that the team members share the same work ethic and what, for want of a better phrase, pride in what they do. People who believe in what they are doing and see their success in more than just financial terms are most likely to contribute positively to the team.

A certain sense of humility and proportion is necessary for a successful team player; they will need to be that rare creature – a star who is content to shine as part of a constellation.

Rowing is a particularly good metaphor for this kind of high-performance team made up of high performers. Each person has an allocated role, and if one is performing below peak, the overall team performance is affected.

In addition, there are no rest breaks and no substitutions. Every member of the team has to be performing at peak all the time – even when they might be feeling below par. In other words, a good team player is not just skilled and capable, they have a certain soundness of character.

Trust is the glue that binds a team together, the essential environment that enables each star performer to give of his or her best.

In the book, the coach recognises that Joe Rantz is the most powerful of the rowers and that a lot of the forward motion was attributable to him. But at one point, his very place on the team was in doubt because he was so erratic. The change came when Joe realised that he had to trust the team to do their tasks and concentrate on integrating what he was doing with what they were doing. This was hard for him because his trust had been betrayed so often by his family, and he had made his way in the world thanks to his self-reliance.

Trust, however, cannot be simply requested or demanded. It needs to be earned.

Leadership and mentorship are both vital.

High-performing individuals are selected, polished and integrated into a team by a gifted coach. Ulbrickson is still recognised as one of the greats for his ability to get more out of his rowers than they had believed possible, and he sees them holistically, concerning himself with the physical, mental and scholastic sides. He sees them as humans, not just as rowers.

Another key, related success factor was the mentoring role played by the master boat-builder, George Pocock. Pocock seems to have been able to help individual rowers understand themselves and what internal barriers were preventing the full realisation of their potential. He was particularly credited with understanding the power of trust, and how to nurture it within the team.

Good, authentic leadership and assiduous mentoring emerge as essential drivers for a successful team.

Hardship and struggle may be valuable creators of resilience.

The question of an individual’s character has already been raised, but it needs a little further examination. All of the members of this rowing team were raised in the straitened conditions of the Depression and had to overcome various degrees of hardship. None more so than Joe Rantz, who had had to take responsibility for himself emotionally and financially from an early age. While adversity is not a guarantee of a strong character, it can bring out the potential in some people. One might argue that this is case for building diversity into teams in order to benefit from the varied life experiences of people from different backgrounds. Whatever their background, an individual can strengthen their character by being humble enough to ask the right questions.

Set goals and measure progress.

The team had a definite goal – winning the intervarsity rowing competition – which led onto another – winning Olympic Gold. This provided two crucial elements: a clear target to which everybody was working, and a way of measuring progress. It was backed up by a comprehensive process: a rigorous training regime time trials to build skill and stamina, acting as intermediate goals; and immediate, detailed and constructive feedback on performance. The overall effect was to create a looped series of repetitions that aimed to deliver incremental gains and avoid incremental losses. In this way, each small gain would accumulate towards the final assault on the end goal.

In conclusion: the story provides a vivid backdrop for great success in tough times. Not unlike those faced today in South Africa. The rowing metaphor is an excellent one for team and business success, and the lessons for leaders and team players are both inspiring and meaningful in a modern-day organisational environment.