I was reminded of this story earlier today and I thought that I would share it, as it was a great lesson Leadership for me.
When I was in school, I think I was 16 at the time, I used to swim for the school team, we weren’t a good team, we lost more than we won, but I loved to swim so I enjoyed it.
I went to a pretty big school, over 1000 students and we had the traditional set up, the students were split into 4 houses, each of which was like a separate school within a school, just like in Harry Potter.
We had lots of inter-house sports competitions football, rugby, cricket, etc. And because I swam for the school I was selected as the captain for my houses swimming team.
The swimming competition was a half-day event and we had multiple races, 50m, 100m and 200m for Breaststroke, Backstroke, and front crawl as well as relay races.
The most difficult even was the 25m Individual Medley where the swimmers had to swim 25m butterfly, 25m backstroke, 25m breast stroke and finishing with 25m of front crawl.
Normally in schools events butterfly isn’t a stroke regularly used as so few people can swim it, but for our house we were lucky, we had a a young guy who actually swam for the city of Leeds who was a great Butterfly swimmer so for us, this was 4 points in the bag.
Unfortunately for us, on the day of the Swimming event he was ill and couldn’t swim, this was a great blow for us as he was going to swim in several races, he was our star and with him in the team we had a great chance to win the overall trophy.
Prior the event I had to take the list of our team members and the events they would compete in to our Head of House, so that she would be able to thank them personally for their contribution, and also to cheer them on by name. I thought this was a great touch and I knew it would be appreciated.
As our Head of House, Miss Etherington, read through the list she gave it back to me, with a bit of a frown, and then said ‘it’s not complete’.
I said ‘yes I know, with the withdrawal of our best swimmer we have no one to swim the individual medley, but it’s not a big deal because two of the other teams don’t have entrants either’.
She smiled at me and said, ‘well thats good, because that means we are guaranteed second place, and as captain of my team Gordon I know you will think of a great solution. Remember I’m counting on you, it’s why I made you captain’.
As I left her office I started to rack my brain, who could I get to swim that event, but there was no one who could swim the butterfly.
Then it occurred to me what she meant, as captain and as leader of the team, if I couldn’t find someone else to do it, then I would need to swim race.
This was a bit of a problem for me, because although I was a good swimmer I’d never swam butterfly ever, and hadn’t don’t much backstroke either, which was how the event started.
So when it came to the medley relay, I took up my starting position, there were only 2 competitors so I was guaranteed second place, I was nervous, and when the gun went I dived in.
How I made it 25m swimming butterfly I will never know, there was a lot of thrashing and not a lot of progress, I could hear many of the spectators laughing at my poor effort, but eventually I completed that length, by which time the other swimmer had almost finished the event, but I continued, and I swam the final two strokes in an empty pool.
As I got out Miss Etherington shouted well done and started a round of applause for my efforts which the rest of the team joined in.
We didn’t win the overall event, we finished second, but Miss Etherington told me she was very happy with the result and that as captain I had done a great job.
From this I learnt a couple of important lessons
- that as the leader don’t ask someone to do something that you’re not prepared to do yourself
- the buck stops with you, if there is no one else to step up, then you have to, and it expected of you
- and also, know the names of your teams and what they are doing, as it allows you to show them you see them and their efforts and allows you to thank them personally
These were important lessons which have stood me in good stead, especially in my professional career.