It was my first time on a dragon boat. And I was going to be there with a big group of first-timers also. People said without training, the boat might struggle to move, or even capsize. But the only thing on my mind was “I want to win this race”.
My friend Rachel is a seasoned dragon boater, and she told me, “when you are on the boat, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Director or a Country Manager. You’re just a guy with a paddle”. And, of course, she was right. My boat lost the race, with me leading right on the front row.
But I really learned some important things, about life and leadership. And I hope people realise these things also.
1) Leadership is not about you, keep your ego in check
Shen was much younger than me, and he was paddling to my right. When we had our first trial run, I asked him to “follow me”. I focused on moving at my pace, expecting him to do the same. He tried really hard, but in the end the boat was slow because we were out of sync.
For a moment, I thought to myself – how do I get someone to follow my lead? And then I realised, the goal is not for him to follow me, but for us to be paddling at the same pace. So before the second run, I said to him, “Shen, now I will follow you”. And suddenly we were much more in sync and the boat moved faster!
In that moment, I learned to keep my ego in check. Because in leadership, the best ideas don’t always come from you. If you’re not the best person to lead a project, be willing to let others shine.
2) Leaders work the hardest, not the easiest.
When we were the front of the boat, we basically paddle into still water. You pave the way for the rest of your guys, so when they paddle, there is already some momentum and its a bit easier. Everyone behind follows you, you have to be one to show the way.
Too many times I have seen leaders work the least, take the back seat, let their guys pull all the weight, and call it “empowerment” or “delegation”. These are good things, but at the extreme, it means being a non-manager. Leaders should always be the first ones to run towards fires, not their people. Show them, and invite your people to follow.
3) Unity, not individual brilliance
When we had a trial run, both of us got too excited and paddled very quickly, but somehow our boat was slow. When we stopped to check in with the rest of the guys on the boat, some of them were struggling to follow our pace. In dragon boating, its all about rowing together. So the second time we tried, we slowed the pace down, and the boat actually moved a lot faster.
People need to move together at the same pace, in teams, in life, it’s not about individuals. So don’t tolerate brilliant jerks in your teams, even though in the short term it may feel like it’s better to have them around. In the end, teamwork is always most important. Because the paddle of one strong person can never surpass the paddles of many, even if they were average performers.
So why did our boat still lose? I guess its because the other team were so much more in sync, and I could have done so much more as the leader. There’s an old African proverb that says:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
And it’s so true. So to every leader out there, take care of your people, because they are the ones who have carried you this far, and they are reason the boat is moving.