February 12, 2021

From Unimportant to Integral: Lessons in Leadership From Dragon Boat Racing


After transferring from Montreal to Toronto when I was working as a Team Lead for one of the major Canadian banks, I decided to join the company’s dragon boat racing team.  If you’re not familiar with dragon boat racing, it’s a human powered watercraft activity that originates from China and can accommodate people from all walks of life, regardless of one’s fitness level, age, or size.  Anyway, my plan was to join the team to get to know some people around the office and have some fun in the process.  However, I quickly found out that the dragon boat team I would be on took their competitions very seriously.

Our dragon boat was decorated with a Chinese dragon head on one end and a tail on the other.  22 people would sit in the boat for a race, including a drummer (the coxswain) who would help the paddlers maintain their rhythm and synchronization.  Together, we would have to work toward the common goal of winning a gold medal.

While the dragon boat racing team was meant to be somewhat recreational, our team’s coach took training and events especially seriously.  I learned that he expected us to perform well and win a medal.  Since I was a beginner, it meant that I could be targeted as the weakest link if we would lose.

It was true that paddling in a dragon boat was a fresh new skill that I had to acquire.  However, since I was constantly training for and competing in marathons at the time, I was quite fit and confident that I could hold my own.

Initially, I gained most of my experience in dragon boat racing by competing against other clubs in Toronto.  But eventually, our team travelled by bus to participate in a big competition at the Olympic Park in Montreal.  There, we would compete against some 25 or so teams from across Canada and the United States.

Race day was very hot.  I did several races that day, but my most memorable time was spent with Western University.  Because they were missing some of their team members, I was asked if I could help out and fill a spot on their boat.  I obliged and was happy to see that they didn’t take the races so seriously.  In fact, they were so worry-free that they had partied the night before and were all hung over.  Given this condition, I should have been prepared for an eventful experience…

During a dragon boat race, your head is down the entire time and you’re simply focused on giving it all you got.  In my case, that was exactly what I was doing while filling in on their team.  However, at one point and to my surprise, I was startled from my focus by our coxswain yelling, “STOP!!!!”

When I looked up, I saw that we were on a direct collision path with another boat.  Given the size and shape of a dragon boat, I knew that it was impossible for us to change course and braced for impact.  Then, we hit the other boat and the dragon head on our boat was decapitated.  You could definitely say that we “slayed” the dragon.

Upon some thought, I figured that our misdirection could have been caused by a man on our team nicknamed “Tiny.”  This man took his contribution to the team very seriously and, because he wasn’t so tiny, maybe he did more work on his side of the boat than he should have.  That or our accident was the result of our team being lopsided from their hang overs.  I’ll let you decide which was the case.

One thing I do know is that our failures were not due to our coxswain.  This coach was very experienced and kind and was the epitome of a leader.  He knew that it was about the rhythm and timing.  He understood wave dynamics and knew how the boat moved better than anyone.  And most importantly, he knew how to motivate us.

After we put our mishap behind us, we were ready for the final race.  Our coxswain had prepared our strategy and I knew that we were in good hands.  With the beat of his drum, he guided us through the race.  He knew when to slow our pace to conserve energy and when to push us to perform at peak capacity.  Throughout the race, from the lead paddler to the back, we worked in unison and went on the offensive to finish on the podium.

There in Montreal, I went from a castaway of a robotic corporate team to a member of a welcoming group that was focused on education and support.  I saw how a leader could turn a bunch of party animals into high performers.  There, thanks to Western University’s dragon boat coach and team, I experienced what leadership and teamwork is all about.

Do you have any experiences with strong leadership?  Or going from an outcast to an integral member of a team?  Let me know on Facebook or in the comment section below!

- Johanne Levesque


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