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Leadership, Group Dynamics and a Boatload of 400s

Hi, important lessons unfolding in the pool today! If you’ve been dropped into a chaotic or ambiguous situation where there’s a void of leadership, you’ll want to read this. It’s about how to navigate these scenarios and drive change.

Many of you have probably swam a Masters workout before, but for the uninitiated: The swim lanes are organized according to pace and the lane leader, as the first swimmer, establishes that pace and keeps the rest of the group tracking to the workout. It’s not an easy job. Not only do you have to set the pace and maintain thru the workout, you must also keep track of the interval distance and push-off times. This involves basic addition and subtraction, which always taxes me!

Our swim lane did not have a strong or consistent leader. We got a lot of occasional swimmers whose goals were mixed: Some were looking to do the workout as prescribed and improve. Others simply wanted the motivation and companionship of a group workout. With these disparate goals, the workout quickly fell apart since everyone swam at different paces. Pool etiquette, like moving aside for faster swimmers, wasn’t really understood or accepted. Let’s call it a free-for-all.

Totally fine for the casual swimmer but a few months ago I got a bug up my butt to ace the workout, which meant I needed to take the reigns and actually lead it. Guess what? This didn’t go so hot the first few times. The lane was led by whoever showed up first, and they set the pace and cadence of the workout. There were people that wanted to take turns leading, or stop to discuss each set. I watched the clock and screamed inside my head.

Finally, I sought the advice of our swim coach. I had initially shied away from this because it felt like tattling, and I wanted to solve things on my own. But I came to the conclusion that I’m a rookie swimmer and would probably benefit from veteran experience. Man, was that the right thing to do!

Step 1 was easy to implement. Show up early, grab the workout and discuss it with the rest of the group. That way, any questions were addressed before the clock started rather than mid-workout.

Although this alone did not guarantee success. New swimmers joined our group or others wanted to lead. It was never the same day twice. As Mike Brzozowski once told me, “To lead, you must set an example to follow.” That became Step 2. The lane leader needed to be on point at all times. No effing around, fatiguing or losing count. One slip-up and you were toast. There was somebody eager to step up and replace you. Better, in fact, to overdeliver… calling out intervals and pace to others in the lane.

Step 2 – Setting an Example – led to a breakthrough. I gained a follower! A new guy showed up and he commented on my lead. I discovered that it was important to stick to the workout and continue leading, even if others fell behind. The fate of the universe (and success of the workout) depended on it.

There were moments when I felt mercenary and conspicuous. I thought: Maybe I shouldn’t be in this position. Am I keeping everyone happy? This kind of self-doubting, negative talk is a disservice to you and others in the group. If the consensus is on your side, you’re kind and competent, then you’re doing a good job. Keep calm and carry on. Lead with confidence. Unleash your inner beast.

With New Guy’s support, I gained momentum. There was safety in numbers. It was no longer one person doing their own thing. It was the majority, and it was hard to go against the majority. We had created a system for new swimmers to observe and follow, and mostly they did… or became frustrated and changed lanes. Which means things are going swimmingly, arf arf!

Anyway, the whole experience reminded me of something Ezra Klein, co-founder of, said in an interview. “Sometimes success depends on changing the context.” The “context” in this case means surroundings, environment, and influences. It turns out that Klein barely graduated from high school with a 2.2 GPA and only hit his stride when he discovered blogging in college. He reasoned later that this was because he didn’t do well with lecture formats, which were most popular in grade school. He just couldn’t absorb the information. But he did better in college, which didn’t mandate class attendance and afforded Klein more one-on-one conversations and independent study. The “dialogue” of blogging turned out to be right up his alley and he went from unpopular loner to well, one of the most successful political bloggers today. [Even now, Klein finds it impossible to listen on conference calls or meetings… unless he is fidgeting with a stressball or something. He’s discovered that he can absorb information if he’s passively listening or multi-tasking. Weird, right?]

The point here is that a simple change to his context, (e.g. different learning styles) led to discovering his voice in the blogging world and catapulted him into an entirely new orbit. He needed to swap unsuccessful contexts for successful ones, or the outcome could’ve been completely different.

Same thing with the swim workout. Showing up early was the first step in changing the outcome and experience. This unlocked other things and the path became clearer.

I hope this doesn’t sound like chest-beating. I wanted to tell the story because many of you must tackle leadership challenges and consensus-building in your everyday work life. Maybe there’s something helpful here. To recap, the path to becoming a [lane] leader:

  1. Assess the context. Seek out veteran advice. Get support from above.
  2. Discuss the plan with others. 
  3. Set an example to follow. Smile and solicit feedback. 
  4. Consistently overdeliver.
  5. Collaborate with the early adopters. Make them your wingmen. Roll out the system together.
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