What does a design leader do?
Resources for new and prospective design leaders
Written by Ricardo Vazquez — Artwork by Abby Arellano
May 9, 2023
Rowing is deceptively simple. It demands a delicate balance. A push followed by a pull.
There’s a reason why rowing isn’t universally popular: It’s grueling. I rowed for years, competitively and recreationally, and it never got any easier. However, I’ve learned so much from rowing about resilience and leadership, which I continue to apply today.
On the water, a rower competes in a boat, called a racing shell, with a razor-thin hull. The stroke comprises several phases: There's the "catch," when the rower submerses their oars. Pushing their feet against a fixed plate in front of them, the athlete straightens their legs, moving their seat toward the bow (the front of the boat) along rails inside the hull. This triggers the "drive," a movement that propels the boat forward. At the end of the drive, as the oars come out of the water, the rower shifts into "recovery," moving their seat closer to their ankles and the stern (the back of the boat), while their knees snap to their chest—readying the rower to "catch" again.
The athlete’s challenge is to “push” (drive) and “pull” (recover) gracefully, perfectly aligned with fellow rowers. In rowing, as in leadership, it’s a quest for harmony, not perfection. In life, when we match the oars of our craft against a complex tide, perfection is impossible. The quest for perfection creates tunnel vision and tends to focus rowers on their own siloed performance rather than on team progress. In rowing, achievement is possible only through seamless collaboration with others. A boat’s leader, called the “stroke” rower, is chosen not for exceptional speed but for an ability to set a pace that everyone can follow.
Rowing requires equal measures of power and patience. While individual efforts are essential, it’s team unity that propels the racing shell. The cumulative power created is astounding. But, as soon as rowers complete a drive, they transition into recovery. As the athlete glides along the seat rail to start the catch, the lactic acid surges. Ironically, discomfort isn’t felt most in the drive but in transition: the time and space we give our muscles to realize just what on earth is happening.
Like rowing, effective leadership also pairs power with patience. Aligning with many stakeholders on a common vision is challenging. It requires drive to create a forward-thinking roadmap, and it requires patience to measure the outcome of our choices. True leaders don’t seek immediate rewards, they row for the long haul. Changes in technique and speed often don’t pay off immediately. But, with patience, the outcome of vision, determination, technique, and execution is trust—and shared strength. Set up the drive, cut against the current, and recover as you balance the boat by listening to the needs of the team.
It’s a curious thing that, in the sport of rowing, the split seconds when the athletes aren’t exerting any physical effort determine how winning teams are made. During recovery, the boat must be in complete coordination. The rowers need to recover cleanly, without reversing the boat's momentum. If they slide toward the stern too quickly, the boat will lose balance and possibly even tip over. If they slide too slowly, the boat will drag. The team must attune to each other’s movement, speed, and momentum. Every bump, every jerking movement threatens the balance.
It establishes perspective. It signifies we are committed to improving our performance over even the smallest distances. Mere inches may separate one boat from another at the finish line. Races will occur, and they will be hard. Where will your motivation come from? How will you show kindness to yourself in adversity? How can you ensure your team comes together in recovery, preparing for the next drive?
One helpful “recovery” practice that enables teams of all kinds to optimize their progress is called “Recap and Reflect.” This activity can help a group decompress together, while sharing victories and considering potential improvements. The “stroke” rower sets the pace for the boat not only in the drive but in the recovery. Likewise, you, as a team leader, can embrace Recap and Reflect as a chance to improve the alignment of your team, and, as a result, its output and creativity. Each of the activity’s four strategic stages helps you learn more about your team.
Guide your group through the following four stages, using a FigJam you’ve created ahead of time. Feel free to use this template.
1. Acknowledge emotions
Using an emotion graph, direct team members to place their avatar on the area of the diagram most closely matching the feelings they have experienced over the last couple of weeks. By welcoming participants’ self-expression, you set an inclusive tone.
2. Reflect on victories and learnings
Encourage folks to contribute their ideas. After 10 minutes, allow the team to share their reactions by leaving FigJam stickers next to the digital notes. Then, take turns talking aloud about highlights and lowlights. Encourage the team to create an affinity map with digital notes indicating individuals’ ideas.
3. Give shout-outs to those who helped along the way
Remind your team that everyone is in this together. Invite them to think of a person who helped them make the last few weeks better in meaningful ways.
4. Invite strategies to improve your team and, along with it, everyone’s performance
Remind your team that we are seeking not individual perfection but team harmony and progress toward our common goal. Give your team opportunities to learn from one another, and support each other when a challenge arises. A healthy team is less about one superstar than about empathetic individuals who care about collective success.
But by bringing a discipline of fitness, performance, and reassessment, with a balance of exertion and recovery, you nurture the team cohesion necessary to progress over the long haul.
In rowing, there is a special zone usually found about halfway through a race. If you were to experience this zone as a passenger on the boat, you would find marked moments of silence, coupled with moments of synchronous effort. You would find a team that doesn’t need words to communicate, because listening is all they need to do. In these moments, the racing shell feels light, the water feels like air, the oars feel like wings, and you feel invincible.
Resources for new and prospective design leaders
As our world continues to become more interconnected, there are more opportunities than ever for technologists to consider how they might impact digital experiences.