Gary Horton | A Coxswain’s Lesson on Living with Purpose

Gary Horton

This week we’re going to put politics aside and talk about a concept that concerns and can benefit all of us. Red, blue, Rams, Bengals – this is for everyone. 

I want to relate a personal story about how everybody matters.  

Way back in 2010 I attended a life-changing one-month on-site “Advanced Management Program” at the Wharton business school. This was a remarkable experience for so very many reasons – as far as to say it actually saved my daughter’s life. But that’s another story. For now, I want to talk about our first two days there. 

The professors divided us up into small groups of five- to six-member teams. Teams we would stay with and collaborate with over the next 33 days. Teams that would study together, build projects together, and perform high-stakes presentations with together. Teams, assembled from people we’d never met before, from different worldwide cultures – all different sizes, shapes, politics and languages. We literally represented most of the whole world. 

Once we’d settled into our newly adopted groups, they hauled us over the Susquehanna River for rowing crew races. 

Now, most of us had never rowed on a professional crew shell, but they taught us for two to three hours and then it was time for our races down the river. 

Can you imagine a bunch of desk-bound CEO types climbing into narrow fiberglass hulls that hold six people to row a mile or so down a river competing against five other teams of out-of-shape office types? 

Boats going everywhere at first, and generally not in straight lines. Boats lurching, stopping, starting, going in circles. We practiced and practiced and then it was time for the real races. 

It turns out our team was the one team with a female member on our team. It also happens that she had been a coxswain on her college crew team. A coxswain is the athlete who sits at the very back and up high on the shell, who calls out the tempo and rhythm of the rowing. She calls when to drop the oars in the water and at what speed to pull.  

“In two, stern pair out, bow pair in, that’s…one…and…two.”  

“Heads up, shoulders down, drive through…” 

“In two, kick up the rate.” 

“Pressure port.” 

“Let’s get our timing together here.”  

I learned something profound that day. Brute strength alone will not will a race with six teammates dropping oars into the river. Because every time an oar hits out of sequence, it acts like hitting the brakes, ruining the efforts of the rest of the team. 

Should two or three drop out of sequence, the boat will go in circles or simply stall… 

But, when you get it just right, when the coxswain sees everyone, times everyone, calls out the right signals at the right time — and when the team has been trained to follow her calls precisely — when those oars ALL hit the water completely coordinated, pulled at a coordinated speed, “In two, stern pair out, bow pair in, that’s…one…and…two,” the hull flies like a rocket. 

The speed increase is so pronounced it’s an experience someplace between exhilarating and alarming. 

We won the race that day by 10 boat lengths, easily. And the reason? Having a ringer coxswain who trained and led us correctly was key. Having teammates who were all in, and who took input and advice to be able to execute on our coordinated plan – that was everything. In 2010, our team crushed it, and to an almost embarrassingly wide distance. 

You get the analogy. It’s not just teamwork, although it’s that, too. It’s not just good leadership, although it’s that also. 

It’s also about the individual cooperating and collaborating with the overall team. If you want to win, everybody matters, both individually and collectively. We can’t excel by ourselves, nor can we excel as a group if we’re not fully united, fully educated, and have the very best intentions together. 

In life as in sports, everybody matters. Everyone should be respected. Everyone should be treated well. Everyone should have equal opportunity. 

We should consider our country’s citizens, their life trajectories, their potential, seriously and with care. We strive for all our success, together. And this recognition must be as high for us with all of life’s advantages as well as the disadvantaged. 

You’ve heard George Bush’s “No child left behind.” President Bush was spot on.  

We listen, learn, help, collaborate. You might be the person who either motivates others – or not. You might be the person others emulate. If you’re really good, others may even ask you for advice and direction. You may not know the extent of your personal influence on others, so look at yourself closely when you look in the mirror before heading out to into the world. 

You’re a key part of our nation’s and the world’s most important team – humanity. Lead and follow, appropriately for our success. 

Everybody matters. Let’s put that at the top of our list for how we treat one another. 

And let’s drop our oars into the water, coordinated, in good will, planning for our common success. Everyone on our boat, bus, or truck, matters. 

When we recognize and act on this reality, we will truly realize freedom and liberty and peace and opportunity – for all. We win! 

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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