Lessons from the Dragon Boat – Part 1

This is an article I wrote for my column “Calibration” which is published in SaskBusiness Magazine.

It was a windy day on the South Saskatchewan. Tension crept into muscles, making them tight with anticipation as six boats drifted towards the start line, paddlers leaning forward at the ready. “Boat 3 – paddle forward, boat 6 – hold your position!” Crack! The gun went off, and the silence was interrupted by the churning sound of wood stabbing and throwing water, and the exhortative shouts of paddlers spurring teammates forward.

Within a few seconds, I began to long for the race to be over. My legs were awkwardly bent back under my seat, and my lower spine was beginning a lobby effort to cease and desist as whole muscle groups began to wage war against each other. Perseverance, however, is the key to fitness and competition, so I determined to finish well and spend myself for the cause. I could do this! I would not be one of the “cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat”! I would press on!

That was when the team started to come unglued. The drummer was having trouble with her metronome, and the pad- dler in front of me began to use the “J” stroke. The “J” stroke is great for canoeing, but absolutely useless in a Dragon Boat. Actually, worse than useless, it is totally counter-productive! Every time I attempted to stab the water with my pad- dle, it came down on top of my team- mates. I was contemplating a new “club” stroke for my paddle, longing to use it, when I noticed that his arms were the size of my thighs, and decided that this might be a terminal move. I glanced to the left to see that the cancer-survivor ladies were beginning to pull ahead. A quick glance to the right, and it became obvious that the U of S Huskies team were going to breeze into first place. This was all wrong! We were supposed to be the team that won! After all, we were a fitness club. We had more gorillas in our boat than people. Two seats ahead of me, a good friend of mine started to vent her frustration with, “Harder! Don’t quit now, people!” With the extra resolve, it felt for a moment like maybe we could improve our position. I leaned in and strained more, but it was no use with fatigue setting in. As I felt my enthusiasm, hope and will draining with my strength, the unthinkable hap- pened. Our boat lurched right, then took a hard left, a full ninety degrees, cut across three lanes, and came to rest on the sand bar in front of the boat house… right in front of the crowd!

So, post-mortem time; what happened? How did a team of gorillas, some of the strongest people in the whole dragon boat competition, come to a place of humiliating defeat? As I retraced our steps, I found that we had missed accommodating some of the most important principles in mobilizing people.

First: make the mission clear. The cancer-survivor ladies were there to celebrate and enjoy their new lease on life to the fullest. The U of S Huskies were there to win, and they disciplined themselves accordingly. Our team had loosely spoken of both fun and winning, and we had accomplished neither.

Second: agree to values that support the mission. Had we decided on a mission of “fun,” we may have agreed to a value of flexibility over discipline. Had we decided on a mission of “win”, we may have agreed to a value of discipline over flexibility. Our Boathouse staff trainer had done well in explaining what we would need to do to compete well. We would have two practices only, and we would all need to be there for them. We would need to master the dragon boat “stab and pull” paddle stroke, and unlearn the canoeist’s “J” stroke. We would need someone in front who had a good sense of timing on the drum, and we would need an experienced person at the helm steering the boat. Some of our team never showed for either practice; a few for only one. In fairness to our helmsman…he had no experience, and volunteered timidly (courageously?) as no one else would.

Third: order your boat. Our trainer had told us how to place people in our boat, “the largest gorillas in the middle, and the lighter people at the front.” We had ignored this instruction in favor of sitting next to our friends. In the very front seat sat a gorilla. Have you seen a boat with too much weight in the front? It functions much like a snowplow in another season.

In the end, we survived as friends, though I have not been near a dragon boat since. The event serves to remind me that clarity of mission and values, along with calibration, facilitates fulfillment.