Leading From The Middle

February 19, 2021

By Henry Fieldman

When we think about leaders we tend to picture people who are ‘in charge’ and ‘calling the shots.’ We think of leadership as a ‘top down’ phenomenon - but is that strictly the case? What even is leadership? According to Kevin Kruse on forbes.com, ‘Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximises the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.’ Nowhere in that definition is there any reference to seniority or to a person’s title. This is not to say that those in traditional leadership roles, such as CEOs, are not leaders. It does, however, imply that the job of leading is not one that’s reserved for those with titles, or those who reside at the top of organisations.

I don’t pretend to have studied management or leadership in my formal education. I am not well versed in the many and various defined styles of leadership such as autocratic, democratic, paternalistic, laissez-faire, transactional, servant, etc.. My undergraduate and postgraduate education was in biology and psychology. We spent more time in the lab, studying the anatomy of the cuttlefish, than we did learning about the intricacies of teams and leaders. Once I had completed my studies I moved straight into GB Rowing Team, where I am now and have been for the past seven years. I’m currently the coxswain for the men’s team. In short, no pun intended, the role of the coxswain, or cox, is to steer the boat and to tell the rowers what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. During my time in the team, I’ve had the privilege of being lead by some of the greatest coaches to have ever graced the ‘Chief Coach’ role of any sport, anywhere - those being most recently Steve Trapmore, Christian Felkel, and - of course - Jürgen Grobler. 

Undoubtedly, there is a significant leadership component to the role of coxswain, and our sport is full of seemingly tailor made roles from which to lead. The Head Coach leads the programme from the top, other coaches lead their assigned boats, the more experienced athletes lead the culture on the water, gym and changing room, and the cox leads the sessions and races from inside the boat. 

An anecdote that floats around the rowing world is that you should ‘follow the stroke person.’ The rower who sits at stroke sits at the very back of the boat, with all other rowers looking at them. They are seen as the one who sets the timing and rhythm. That is all well and good when you’re learning to row or getting settled in a new crew. However, at maximum speed in the middle of a World Championship final, there really isn’t time to be following anyone. If you’re following, you’ll probably be late. At this level, everyone in the boat needs to be leading the rhythm and setting the timing themselves. I think this is a pertinent analogy to how the team operates more generally when we are at our best. We need a vision or a direction, which is provided to us from above by our Chief Coach. It’s our job to take that and run with it, lead ourselves, the people around us, below us and above us, with how we conduct ourselves day to day. 

It’s also our job to empower the people around us to become leaders themselves if they don’t feel able, or to empower those around us to lead better. ‘Leaders create leaders,’ is a great quote from the book ‘Legacy’ by James Kerr about the culture of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. When I first arrived at Caversham, where the GB Rowing Team is based, I was fresh out of university and found myself having to cox people who I had looked up to when I was a kid. I was nervous and very much in my shell. Two of the best athletes in the team at the time, Andrew Triggs-Hodge and Pete Reed (both of them three time Olympic Champions) made it their business to take me under their wings. They took the time to introduce themselves, joke around with me to make me feel part of the group, while also being publicly and privately supportive of what I was doing out on the water. These talismanic leaders were setting about empowering me to lead and in so doing, make me into a force for positive performance in the team. I wasn’t consciously aware of this at the time, but I did know that I was enjoying myself and going fast!

Now, I consider my role as coxswain in the GB Rowing Team very much as a leadership role, but I also see my teammates as leaders as well, both on and off the water. I see it as my role to empower others and help them to lead. If we are all pushing towards that unified purpose and vision of how things should be done, how we want to be, how we want to train, how we want to row, and how we want to race - and we are all leading, be that from the top or somewhere in the middle, then we will get there. For you in your organisations, be aware that everyone can be a leader, and I would argue that to some extent everyone should be a leader. So I would propose that we take this on, lead from the middle, and help the people around us to do the same.

Photo credit: Nick Middleton @nickmiddletonphotogrpahy