5 lessons I learnt building a competitive dragon boat club

About 10 years ago my husband and I decided to start a dragon boat racing crew. We’d been part of some of the most competitive crews, both locally and internationally and we’d enjoyed every minute of a team environment.

When we arrived back in Australia, we decided to set up a club and build a crew from the ground up. Today we are one of the most competitive dragon boat racing crews in Australia with over 100 members.

At a job interview I attended a little while ago, I recalled a learning opportunity I’d had in my sporting life to support my ability to undertake the new role. My prospective team lead rolled his eyes, as if because my experience had been in a dragon boat that it meant less. Upon reflection, I fundamentally disagree. Why couldn’t I take what I’d learnt through running a large sporting crew of independent adults into the workplace, why couldn’t this be part of what made me a good team member and a leader.

Today, I am an Agile Delivery Coach with a background in Program Management, that can be another blog another time perhaps.

Here are the five lessons I learnt building one of the fastest dragon boat racing crews in Australia, that I take to work with me:

1. Honest feedback – then and there (anything else is insincere)

Why do we have a habit of shying away from giving feedback? I wonder if it’s because we don’t practice enough (reference annual reviews), or if we’re scared of the consequences?

In sport we provide feedback then and there. It’s applicable at the time, it’s contextual and it is directly related to the team objective: make the boat go fast. Feedback should be no different in the workplace. Why can’t we provide it to our teams at the time, considering our organisational goals, contextually and such that it is implementable, then and there?

They will hear you, really hear you if you are being truthful, honest and speaking from the heart about a goal they share.

2. Lead with love

Empathy, in its most simple form is awareness of the feelings of others, it is the link between yourself and other people. Your behaviour around this will give the team the confidence they need to follow you. Take care of them, nurture them, be honest with them. It is OK to genuinely care about the welfare of your team, to protect them. Once they know that what they see in you is what they get from you, they will always know you’re being authentic and they will be there for you.

I am fiercely passionate about the welfare of my crew, and they know it. They also know that I have high expectations of their focus, behaviour and attitude toward each other.

3. Instil bravery – all the time

In all our team members we instil bravery, strength and belief that anything is possible. We do this through creating a secure place for our team to learn, fail (or succeed) and try again. It is only through this process that we get the best out of them. Bravery doesn’t mean that we don’t feel fear. Fear of failure or disappointment can be a driver, but when that driver stops us taking risks or trying something new, we lose opportunities.

As we move to a world where teams are encouraged to lead themselves, tap into the greatness of minds and experience instead of being ‘told’ what to do through management roles, we will only be successful if we can provide our teams with a place to try.

4. Be a servant leader, but back yourself

Arrogance is unattractive, unrequired and counteractive. Too many environments I’ve worked in expect arrogance to get ahead. Your manager sees you stick your head above everyone else, boom you’re in. My success has been through my ability to push my team forward, all the time. Your personal endeavours or achievements alone will never make your team or organisation great as a whole. If you truly believe in your team, they will follow you, they will listen and learn from you.

When external influences become challenging to manage, as a leader move forward by fortifying yourself with the confidence your team has in you.

5. Ladies – Show them what big dreams can do

Our women’s crew is very dear to my heart (and are currently placed top 4 in the world). As a coach of this crew I’ve seen a power, confidence and competitive nature come through in our ladies where often, in today’s society women are discouraged from being too competitive or aggressive.

I’ve seen many women in my sporting team grapple with managing and processing competitive desires. Is it OK to allow feelings to flow? Women make great program managers, we make great people managers, we make great leaders. We do this because we feel, and where we feel comfortable enough, we follow these feelings supporting our teams; its ok to feel feelings, use them to help read people, understand situations and grow your teams.

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