On the day following his attendance of a case study presentation on the Boys in the Boat - the story of the 1936 American rowing team’s Olympic journey - delivered by organisational performance architects, LRMG, Chapter One innovation’s Chief Executive, Rori Tshabalala, sent an email of appreciation to his counterpart at LRMG capturing his reflections and the ways in which the case study had provoked him
Thanks so much for the invitation; really enjoyed both the story and the process. Great insights shared. For my own sense-making and landing the lessons and insights; to share with my team and just to share w yourselves in gratitude; here are some of my reflections sparked by the session:
(1) A theme that stood out strongly for me across the whole story was that of synchronicity and harmony; themes that I’d more readily associate with more “gentler” and more graceful disciplines of ballet and artistic swimming than rowing. A thought that occurred to me was that we are not a team simply because we work together or occupy the same boat, we only really become a team when we arrive at a place of synchronicity and harmony; this goes beyond us being in the same boat, wanting the same thing (to win) or believing in the same thing (that we can win); it is about how those beliefs, desires, competencies come together (I think a word that was used is “converge”) when it matters most;
(2) I know that you’re all going through a journey with David Whyte and this concept of synchronicity and harmony brought to mind a poem that I read in a David Whyte book years ago, Crossing the Unknown Sea, where he references a poem by Robert Bly on the swan :
“This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way that a swan walks.
And to die, which is letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvellously calm,
and after him, wave after wave,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on."
The very same swan that is awkward and lacking grace when it walks on the ground; gains a majestic and king-like grace when it finds its synchronicity with the water; when it surrenders itself (vulnerability) and lets itself down into it. What’s of interest to me and links back to something that was highlighted by yourselves in the case study is that in order to achieve synchronicity with the water the swan does not try to take control of the water; it simply focuses on “pulling its own weight” in synchronicity with the water which “flows joyfully under and after him, wave after wave” while allowing the water to be itself and to do its thing. Reminds me of a quote on sailing by Matshona Dhliwayo : “You don’t command wind in the direction it blows, but you command a ship in the direction it sails. The storm only comes to teach you how to skilfully sail your ship.” All of this surrender/yielding/not commanding the wind or channeling the water is counterintuitive to our inherited notions of what it means to take control of situations yet even for the boys, the “hot one” as he was referred to by one of the participants had to get over his instinct (probably the result of what is referred to as the "amygdala hijack” in LRMG language) of “fighting” through hardship - hitting the water harder and paddling faster - and settle for a counterintuitive productive yielding to finding that synchronous stroke that made all the difference.
(3) It occurs to me that being synchronous is not about learning hard code about being weak when the rest are strong or being strong when they are strong; it is an acceptance to an invitation to pay a radical form of attention to whatever is happening in and to those around you and having the dynamic intelligence to adjust your own performance and behaviour accordingly - at times this might require you to match the team, other times it might call on you to serve as a counter-balance for the team; there is no set formula except that you constantly be in tune and alignment with the current, real-time state of the team; this also seems to suggest that contextual adaptability carries much greater premium than “this is the way it's always been done” kind of thinking. Interesting implications on how experience and the one size fits all methods that it might come with can thus become an inhibitor of contextual adaptability;
(4) What is implied in the swan poem above and what also stood out in the case study was that it wasn’t just about finding synchronicity with the rest of the team it was also about finding synchronicity with the unique wood (“only God can make a tree”) that one was working with that day, it was about finding synchronicity with the water, it was about finding synchronicity with one’s own internal infrastructure borne of past and present experiences and aspirations of the future whether derived from negative or from positive experiences and finally finding synchronicity with the prevailing “laws of nature” (e.g. knowing how to unlock consistent performance in a key member of the team) as it were that could only be discovered through both acquiring useful learning and abandoning unproductive learning which is only possible if one yields and engages w humility. The kicker, I found, was that one always has to be synchronised to these as individual entities and as a collective; being intimately attuned to how each of them are behaving individually and also how they are behaving as a converged system.
(5) If there’s a key lesson I’m taking away from this is that you simply can’t operate in synchronicity if all you hear is the sound of your own “demons”, aspirations, fears, etc. Synchronicity seems to require, no demands, that a radical amount of attention be paid to what’s happening around you without losing the rhythm of your own unique contribution. Reminds me of when I was (unsuccessfully) learning to play the drums back in high school and how I struggled to achieve synchronous performance of my respective limbs that had to produce a single, coherent rhythm and beat while individually doing different things - for the life of me my right hand could not maintain the required tap-tap-tap tempo on the hi-hat and leave my right leg to do its doof-doof-doof on the bass drum at its own tempo; the hand-kept synchronising to the beat of the bass drum. My conundrum (excuse the pun) seems to suggest that it’s not so much synchronous input (doing the same thing/uniformity) that is required, but rather synchronous output (different things done in lockstep to one another).
(6) On the question of legacy - given the context then and the context now the case study did raise a question in my mind about one’s own legacy vs the broader legacy that one aligns oneself to. By being at the Olympics in Nazi Germany it can be argued that the American team served and perhaps somewhat enabled Hitler’s agenda irrespective of what it meant for their own individual legacies. The video said that Hitler was using the Olympics to project a certain propaganda out in the world. We live in a world where present-day injustices are being highlighted and confronted in increasingly forceful ways. Is it enough for me to keep my head down and focus on my individual legacy or should I be paying greater attention to how my pursuit of legacy is perhaps nested in a broader legacy that I may be further reinforcing? If, for instance, I want my legacy to be that I led a 10X company does it matter that I pursue and achieve that goal with a team made up entirely of men? Achieving my personal legacy on the one hand yet reinforcing a broader negative legacy on the other. This didn’t come up in the story and the boys seem to have gone down in history as heroes so does it/should it matter?
(7) Interesting question raised for me on the tension between sentiment and pragmatism when they insisted on having a sick team member on the boat. It makes for great, inspiring and rousing sentiment that the guys were not willing to leave one of their own behind; that they were prepared to drag him along across the finish line - that’s the kind of stuff that legendary quotes are made of indeed. Pragmatically, though, it does raise the question for me as a leader whether it is a good leadership call to carry “dead weight” as it were into a high-stakes scenario for the sake of sentiment. They won in the end and so it becomes a non-issue; yet had they lost how would that call been read? To distill principle out of anecdote that particular heuristic needs to hold regardless of the outcome and so it raises two key questions for me to reflect on : (a) would it have still been a good call if they had lost? and (b) is it regarded as a good call because they won as a result of it or is it regarded as a good call because things worked out in the end? From what was shared in the story the decision was based on sentimental considerations rather than practical ones from what I could gather. Beyond just being interesting catalysts for thought-experimentation these questions do have practical implications, especially at a time such as what we are going through economically where decisions have to be made on retrenching people for instance;
(8) We were asked to reflect, in our groups, on our own experiences of turning adversity into triumph in our lives. That brought the Serenity Prayer to mind for me because though; I can’t really say I’ve turned the adversity of the COVID-19 challenge into a triumph of Olympic gold medal proportions, what I have managed to do (forced to do rather than out of any particular wisdom on my part) is made a study of suffering - not trying to avoid, fight or ameliorate it but just to sit in it a bit and study it, confront it and meet the stranger within who is probably out of practice when it comes to suffering at the depths that this season has required. The lemonade I’ve been able to squeeze out of the lemon has simply been to internalise the principles of the serenity prayer and doing less stressing over things I have no control over and pushing through the pain on things I do have control over, even if they are hard to do and achieve success in nonetheless.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)