3 Leadership Lessons Learnt from Dragon Boating

Dragon boating was an ancient folk ritual of contending villagers, which has been held for over 2000 years throughout southern China. Shikin Hamid gives you the low-down on dragon boating and lessons for every business leader.

“Pull longer, harder, faster!” cheered my captain as she sensed our boat losing surge. It was already Saturday evening, second practice session for the day and a run to end our water training.

I can only imagine the challenges faced by my captains. If not managed well, the team’s success risk of ‘capsizing’.

Firstly, managing ‘A Type’ women paddlers in the team, who are physically strong and opinionated poses a challenge to captains in running the team.

Secondly, like a corporate manager, captains have to constantly juggle different interests; the emotional needs of the paddlers, coaches’ strategies and administration.

Lastly, dragon boat is known to a highly committed sport, where training 11 times a week is necessary yet ordinary.

It all seems like a daunting task yet the lessons learnt from my observations of my captains are valuable and can be applied to all facets of life.

In dragon boating, teams are obsessed about synchronization. Every stroke is well thought out.

After being through 3 dedicated captains, I’ve observed the following lessons:

#1: Each team member is a piece to a puzzle

A dragon boat team can be divided into 3 areas of expertise – drummer, paddlers and steersman.

Ideally, the drummer would be the individual with a loud voice that drowns out the sounds of the drum and competitors. I would say the drummer is the motivator.

The paddlers, come in many forms – stamina, strength, body weight, paddling style- and their task is to propel the boat forward. They are the executors the race strategy, employing different stroke style and frequency during the race. These individuals make the bulk of the team.

Without the steersman, the boat will go off course. I personally have high respect for steersman as they are the ones who have to maneuver the boat in high-intensity races. The paddlers safety is also in the hands of steersman. Know that these individuals don’t crack under pressure!

When put them together, they have different point of view on what’s best for the team. At times, conflicts occur because of the differing views.

Yet, as the leader –  the captain makes the final call and everyone plays an important role for the team to cross the finishing line.

Ultimately, the captains have the bird’s-eye view on the value every individual brings to the boat and piecing them together.

To be able to stand on the podium, a captain has to be the facilitator, mediator to successfully bind these 3 essential roles together- just like solving a jigsaw puzzle.

This is much like the challenges that a leader faces today.

The exciting bit is, no two paddlers are the same.

#2: You are only as good as your weakest paddler

In dragon boating, teams are obsessed about synchronization. Every stroke is well thought out.

Down to the minor details of when the blade of the paddle enters and exits the water, has to be carefully narrated. Just like a performance.

Behind the Science and Math of each stroke, it boils down to the capabilities of the paddlers in the team. Some are better at long distance races, while others are as good in short races.

The exciting bit is, no two paddlers are the same. It is important to seek out those in the team that may lacking behind, be it their performance on and off the boat.

Especially in a team sport, inevitably the weakest member will affect the performance of the team. From my observation, captains always reach out to paddlers with additional training or sessions to hone a technique they have yet to master.

Have a teammate lagging behind? Invest in them, set goals and conquer the competition together. Remember, your team is only as good as your weakest member.

#3: Effective communication is essential for success

I have personally been in situations where a communication chain breaks and the team fails to execute its race strategy. At times, strategy changes due to external conditions such as the boat’s surge and water conditions.

Communication on the boat is essential but communication off the boat takes precedence. Communication off the boat, setting goals, visions and expectations are crucial as these will be translated into the boat.

However, communication is a two-way process.

Identify the channels and avenue to openly air feedback. Providing a non-judgmental, safe environment built on trust could facilitate discussion and clear doubts.

Despite the uphill battle, it is satisfying to be able to be on a podium after all the sweat, tears and (at times) blood with your teammates!

Communication off the boat, setting goals, visions and expectations are crucial as these will be translated into the boat.

On that Saturday, my teammates and I were mentally and physically drained. With every stroke I executed, my mind drifted away from the boat and the lactic acid drowned me over.

Yet, I could still hear my captains relentlessly echoing “Push harder!”

Much like a leader, a captain’s responsibility is to motivate his/her team.

If you haven’t tried dragon boating before, I highly recommend it as a sport to increase your mental and physical fitness, meet a diverse range of people and trying a new exhilarating sport!

Here’s some information on where/how you can take it up as a sport:

To learn more about dragon boating in Singapore visit Active Sg.

Looking for a competitive or recreational club to meet like-minded people? Visit these international clubs:

Hope you like it as much as I did!

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