Leadership Lessons from the Pool: Embracing Challenges

Earlier today, this story came to mind, and since it taught me a valuable lesson about leadership, I thought I would share it.

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 with over 1000 students, and we had the traditional setup: 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 of my house’s 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 event was the 25-meter individual medley, where the swimmers had to swim a 25-meter butterfly, a 25-meter backstroke, a 25-meter breaststroke, and finish with a 25-meter front crawl.

Normally in school events, the butterfly isn’t a stroke regularly used as so few people can swim it, but for our house, we were lucky. We had a young guy who actually swam for the city of Leeds and 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 to 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 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, that’s 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 in that event? But there was no one who could swim the butterfly.

Then it occurred to me what she meant: as captain and leader of the team, if I couldn’t find someone else to do it, then I would need to swim the race.

This was a bit of a problem for me because, although I was a good swimmer, I’d never swum butterfly and hadn’t done 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 25 metres, 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 learned 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 is 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 that have stood me in good stead, especially in my professional career.

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