Painful Reminders

As part of our morning routine, I walk my oldest daughter to school. Over time I’ve become friendly with the school crossing guard, an older guy who once was a narcotics police officer. We usually talk while waiting for the lights to change.

cane as a reminderThis morning he was using a cane and I asked him about it. I had never seen him using one before. He explained that 17 years ago, when he was a police officer, he was hit by a car driven by a woman high on drugs who was trying to escape.

The woman was arrested and later sentenced to two weeks in rehab. The day after she was let out, she threw herself in front of a train near Salem station and died.

He went on, “She was only 24 years old. Beautiful girl. Every time my knee acts up, I’m reminded of her. I’m not angry. Just saddened by the loss.”

Lead With the Heart

Before a long road trip, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson, used to give his players an assigned book to read. Jackson would select these books specifically for each player based on what he knew about them. He put a lot of thought into it.

Not a book I would suspect Michael Jordan would have a lot of interest in

Not a book I would suspect Michael Jordan to have a lot of interest in

For example, on one long West Coast trip he assigned “Song of Solomon” to Michael Jordan, “The Ways of White Folks” to Scottie Pippen, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to John Paxson, “On the Road” to Will Purdue, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” to B.J. Armstrong, and “Beavis and Butt-head: This Book Sucks” to Stacey King.

He had varying levels of success with this project. Some players got into it and always did their reading. Some never bothered to open their book to page one.

Say what you will about NBA players but they are not known as big literary types. But converting the Chicago Bulls into the Toni Morrison Book Club wasn’t Jackson’s goal. What he wanted to do was send a message to them – that he knew certain things about them, he took the time to recognize them as individuals, and he cared.

Basketball players make millions of dollars a year. Monetarily, they’re all set and most coaches would treat them as such. Caring is not part of the standard equation. But throughout his coaching career Jackson made sure his players knew he didn’t regard them as disposable, easily replaced cogs.


The player getting this recognition from the coach feels like a million dollars right now

Regardless of who you are, human beings universally like to be recognized as individuals. Although Jackson never became buddy-buddy with his players, because at some point he might have to cut or trade them, he treated each of them as individuals worthy of respect. He cared enough about them to give them a gift specially tailored to them. The players loved it and they responded by helping Jackson win 11 (11!) NBA championships.

Some critics might say “Oh yeah, coaching is easy when you’ve got Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant.” But NBA history is filled with stories of teams stocked with stars who ultimately underperformed. Michael Jordan never won a championship until Jackson came aboard. As soon as he did, they won six. The Lakers, who had both Shaq and Kobe, lost every year in the playoffs prior to Jackson’s arrival. That didn’t change until he became coach and they won it all in his first year.

Delivering value by caring – that something leaders do. The only reason it doesn’t happen more often is it requires a lot of effort and thought. Much easier to scream, bark orders, and reduce people’s value to a number on a balance sheet. But that’s a dumb method that only produces short term, if any, results. The long term solution for bringing out the best in your employees is caring and giving them respect.

What Rowing Taught Me About Teamwork

Photo Credit: Bill Ilott

Photo Credit: Bill Ilott

Back when I worked in Harvard Square in Cambridge I used to ride my bike to the office from Brighton. Every morning I went over the same bridge and, over time, I fell into the habit of stopping there to watch the crew boats rowing up and down the Charles. It was a beautiful sight, a perfect balance of power and grace. I thought to myself, “I need to get into this sport.”

It took a number of years but eventually I did. I joined the program offered at CRI, learned the basics, worked my way up and made it onto the competitive team. In 2005 I rowed in an eight man boat in the Head of the Charles, the largest two day rowing regatta in the world. With that goal accomplished I retired from river rowing.

The very best rowers, like in any sport, make it look easy but I can tell you this is not in any way true. Rowing is one of the world’s most technical and difficult sports to master. The first thing I learned in rowing was the boats are very tippy. When the rowers are not in synch or balanced, the boat will flop to one side or the other. Balancing the boat requires awareness of your teammates tendencies, the coach’s direction, and how you fit into the bigger picture.


A rower using a rowing machine, known as an “erg.” The look on the guys’s face summarizes how much fun it is. Photo credit: Ben Bradshaw

Rowers often quantify their value by their erg score. The erg (short for ergometer) is a rowing machine that measures the rate and power of each stroke. It provides raw data with no hiding or excuses. As a result, rowers have a deep love/hate relationship with it.

Want to make a rower feel sick? Tell them today is erg test day. On erg test days, rowers go all out on this thing to the point of vomiting. It is a truly godawful experience. The only time you feel good is when it is over. But every rower knows their 2K erg score, either a source of shame or pride, and how it compares to every one else’s on the team.

This measurement should make it easy, right? Just put the strongest erg score guys in a boat together and watch them fly down the course. Wrong. Some rowers row the port side, some on starboard, and some can do either. Some rush the recovery, some are more patient and slow. Some guys are powerful but have bad technique (known as “rocks”). Some guys are the opposite – weak in power but have strong technique.

Because of this a boat is not the sum total of everyone’s erg scores. Putting together a fast boat is putting together complementary pieces. This guy holds his hands high, this one low – can you pair them together? There is no right and wrong measurement of a rower, as tempting as it is to reduce each rower’s value to an erg score.

In addition some rowers have lower erg scores but are just nice to be around – a positive presence. The fact is that waking up at 5 am to work out is a total drag. It was something I never enjoyed but it was a lot easier when I liked my teammates. Who would you rather row with – a guy with an amazing erg score who is a jerk or a guy who is a less skilled rower but a excellent person who makes his teammates better?

Because of the coordination required, I consider rowing the ultimate team sport. In football, basketball, baseball and hockey you may have a few superstars on the team who can make things happen all by themselves. In rowing a crew team is required to work together to make the boat move. In an ideal boat, eight rowers become one.

The best rowers realize this and know how to gel with their teammates. They don’t criticize them and insist that their way of rowing is the correct way. They are egoless because they know they have to work with others to make the boat move. They are generous, open-minded to new thinking, and flexible. Working together they make a balanced boat and a balanced boat is a fast boat that wins.