Case 12.2: Olympic Rowers
In the 1930s, rowing was the most popular sport in the country. The sport not only was physically brutal but required inexhaustible teamwork. In an eight-man rowing shell, each member of the team has a role to fulfill based on where he sits in the boat. The movements of each rower are precisely synchronized with the movements of the others in the boat. Every rower in the shell must perform flawlessly with each and every pull of the oar; if one member of the crew is off, the whole team is off. Anyone rower’s mistake can throw off the tempo for the boat’s thrust and jeopardize the balance and success of the boat. In the early 1930s, rowing was a sport dominated by elite East Coast universities like Cornell, Harvard, and Princeton. However, two West Coast teams, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington, had an intense rivalry not only with the crews from the East Coast but with one another as well. Al Ulbrickson, the varsity crew coach at the University of Washington, had watched jealously as the California team ascended to national prominence, representing the United States in the 1932 Olympics, and was determined that his University of Washington team would be the one to represent the United States at 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Ulbrickson’s program had a number of talented rowers, including those who had rowed to win the national freshman championships in 1934. Unlike teams from the East Coast whose members’ lives were often marked by privilege and wealth, many of the boys in the University of Washington program came from poor, working-class backgrounds. They were the sons of loggers, farmers, and fishermen, and gaining a spot on the rowing team would help pay for their college education. Over the summer break these same boys would work, often in dangerous and physically taxing jobs, so they could afford to return to college in the fall. Finding the ideal makeup of members for a successful rowing team is a complex process. A great crew is a carefully balanced mix of rowers with different physical abilities and personalities. According to Brown (2013), “Good crews are blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve, someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace, someone to think through, someone to charge ahead without thinking . . . Even after the right mixture is found, each oarsman must recognize their place in the fabric of the crew and accept the others as they are” (pp. 179–180). To find that magic mix, Ulbrickson experimented with different combinations of rowers, putting individual rowers on different teams to see how they performed together. But it was more than just putting the right abilities together; it was finding the right chemistry. He finally did with a team of boys who “had been winnowed down by punishing competition, and in the winnowing, a kind of common character had issued forth: they were all skilled, they were all tough, they were all fiercely determined, but they were also all good-hearted. Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the hard times in which they had grown up . . . The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—and humility was the common gateway through which they were able now to come together” (Brown, 2013, p. 241). One of those team members said when he stepped into the shell with his new teammates, he finally felt at home. This Washington varsity team decimated the competition on the East and West Coasts, earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. At the Berlin Olympics, the team faced a number of challenges. One of their key oarsmen had fallen seriously ill on the transatlantic voyage to Germany and remained sick throughout the competition. There were distractions everywhere. But every time the American boys saw tension or nervousness in one another, they drew closer together as a group and talked earnestly and seriously to each other. They draped arms over one another’s shoulders and talked through their race plan. “Each of them knew a defining moment in his life was nearly at hand and no one wanted to waste it. And none wanted to waste it for the others” (Brown, 2013, p. 326). The team defeated England in its preliminary heat and made it to the finals. But the odds were stacked against them: They were in the worst lane in the final race, which put them at a two-length disadvantage; they experienced a delayed start because their coxswain missed the signal that the race had begun, and their sick oarsman was barely conscious. But they came from behind and triumphed, winning Olympic gold. As Brown (2013) points out, “No other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding skills . . . but they have no stars. The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water. . . the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self” (pp. 177–178).
1. 1. In what way is this case about followership? Who were the followers? Who were the leaders?
2. The coxswain is the crew member who sits in the stern facing the bow, steers the boat, and coordinates the power and rhythm of the rowers. In this case, is the coxswain’s role more or less important than the roles of other crew members? Explain your answer.
3. . Reversing the lens emphasizes that followers can be change agents—what was the impact of followers’ characteristics of followers’ behaviors in this case? What impact do you think Ulbrickson’s perception and behaviors had on the rowers in his program?
4. How would you describe the impact of both followers and leaders on followership outcome?
5. . In this case, the boys in the boat created a highly cohesive unit. Do you think highly effective followership always results in cohesiveness? Defend your answer.
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