Learning to Trust and Like One Another
The Boys in the Boat, James Daniel Brown’s bestseller is more than the account of how the unlikely United States 9-man crew from the University of Washington won the gold in rowing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
It is about the cost and reward of teamwork, of hardscrabble life in the Pacific Northwest during the great depression on the eve of World War II.
Brown interviewed Joe Rantz one of the 1936 gold medalists shortly before his death in 2007. Rantz, who as a young teenager lived alone after his parents abandoned him, recounted a conversation with George Pocock his mentor and the boat builder of the shell they rowed to victory.
Pocock warned him –
that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row across the finish line all by himself.
He suggested that Joe think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined.
Pocock described the attitude he must have to become a part of a team –
A man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened up his heart to them. He had to care about his crew. It wasn’t just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt.
Joe Rantz remembered what Pocock said about liking his crewmates –
If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do.
I paused there, wondering, how do we learn to like people we dislike? And how can we get anything done if we don’t like the people we are with?
The reward of teamwork would be worth the effort. Pocock told him –
Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work in you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes, you feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.
I suspect that one of the reasons The Boys On The Boat has remained a best seller for over a year — beyond the nostalgia and pride of winning the 1936 Olympic gold in Hitler’s Germany – is our longing for the exhilaration of being on a team with people who trust and like one another.
Organizational leaders are expected and need to build highly functioning teams to achieve their goals and fulfill their mission. They know that it takes more than talent for a group to become a team. Groups become dysfunctional when members, however skilled and committed, are competitive, hostile or simply dismissive of one another.
But a crew calls it swift when they are in perfect sync. They can feel it. Spectators can see it. Despite their obstacles at the Berlin Olympics the boys in the boat from the University of Washington found their swift and became a winning team.