Thoughts on Leadership: The Boys in the Boat

By Gino Blefari 

This week my thoughts aren’t so much about my travels as they are about what happened while I was away. Nearly two months ago, on a rare rainy day in Southern California, I received a call from HSF Affiliates CFO Brian Peterson, (who also happens to be my neighbor), letting me know he had picked up a package at my door so it wouldn’t get wet.

“Thanks, Brian,” I said over the phone. “That’s interesting though because I didn’t order anything to my SoCal residence but it’s probably a book.”

In fact, it was a book, a very good book I’d like to discuss with you today.

The narrative that arrived at my door that rainy day was The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown, sent to me by Pete Slaugh, managing director at Lancaster, PA-based Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices HomeSale Realty. And if you haven’t yet read The Boys in the Boat, this feel-good story about superstar rowers on a quest to achieve Olympic victory is not only incredibly inspirational but also applicable to every industry and profession. Here are a few key passages I found particularly insightful …

On the attainment of an elusive rowing phenomenon called swing: “There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called ‘swing.’ It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that not a single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action – each subtle turning of wrists – must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.”

And can’t the same be said for a company? For an office? For a real estate agent or team? Each of us must perform in perfect unison with our colleagues, each must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of those around us as we work to achieve what is known in the rowing world as “swing.”

On the virtues of diversity: “Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews, and great crews are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types … And capitalizing on diversity is perhaps even more important when it comes to the characters of oarsmen. A crew composed entirely of eight amped-up overly aggressive oarsmen will often degenerate into a dysfunctional brawl or exhaust itself in the first leg of the long race. Similarly, a boatload of quiet but strong introverts may never find the common core of fiery resolve that causes the boat to explode past its competitors when all seems lost. Good crews are good blends of personalities; someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh. That’s the steepest challenge.”

So, here’s the message: Think about us at HSF Affiliates. Look at how different we are; look at how different I am from you, reading this right now, or how different you are from the person you work next to every day. There’s a fascinating dichotomy that plays out between the differences we innately possess and the synchrony we aspire to achieve, and when taken together, it all works to help us to find our swing.

GINO BLEFARI is CEO of HSF Affiliates LLC. You can follow Gino on Facebook and Twitter.

3 responses to Thoughts on Leadership: The Boys in the Boat

  1. The recent exploits of our Golden State Warriors basketball franchise is another example of “swing” in practice. The interaction of all the moving parts of the squad over the series and especially on display in the final 6th game represents a graphic depiction of the phenomenon.


  2. Robin Leigh

    I love that the book was delivered in the rain and and to be rescued from the water by your neighbor, whom you also work with, wonderful ‘coincidence’ and a fun example of teamwork. Great post Gino!


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