Leading Your Team: 3 Keys to Success

Leadership is a balance of art and science; whether in a boat on the water, serving in the military, or learning in a classroom, success hinges on remaining calm as you navigate the storm of outside influences, understanding the individuals you lead and inspiring the desire to “own your role.” Drawing from 12 years of experience as a coxswain in the sport of rowing and eight years as an officer in the Marine Corps, the parallels between these seemingly disparate domains are pretty apparent. I would like to share three keys to success that have aided me on my journey to becoming a more effective leader and ultimately shaped the Marine Officer I am today. 

At 5-foot-3, 105 pounds, and in a leadership laboratory known as the United States Naval Academy, I had the exact makeup of someone who could excel as a coxswain in the sport of rowing. While I had much experience regarding sports in high school, I was not introduced to the sport of rowing, like many others, until I walked onto the women’s Division 1 rowing team at Navy. I quickly became a professional student of the sport and learned as much as I could.  

The more I learned about rowing and being a coxswain, the more I learned about leadership and what an integral part of the sport it was. The coxswain is like the brain of the boat if the boat was the body. The energy of the coxswain can be felt throughout the about 60-foot-long boat from the bow, which is the front of the boat, to the stern, which is the back. 

3 Keys to Success 

  1. Calm Breeds Calm, Navigate External Influences: A leader’s attitude and demeanor will permeate those they are leading and shape the collective mindset and performance. To be effective, a leader must remain calm as they navigate external influences in a sea of chaos. 
  1. Embrace Individuality: Understand that people are unique and often require different leadership styles. A good leader does not have one perfect style but rather learns several and employs them as needed in various situations. 
  1. Ownership of Roles: Regardless of the group, everyone has a role to play. Individuals must understand their role, whether they are in a leadership or follower position. This will build cohesion and buy-in from the group. 

Calm Breeds Calm, Navigate External Influences 

The way leaders conduct themselves will be mirrored back to them by those they lead. Whether you are a coxswain steering a boat, an officer in the Marine Corps, or guiding a classroom, maintaining composure and confidence is paramount.  

The coxswain of a boat not only steers the boat but is also responsible for directing the rowers by giving commands (e.g., keep steady, increase pace). The team will not be in sync if the coxswain does not maintain the rhythm and give clear instructions. At one of the largest regattas in the country, the Head of the Charles Regatta, a coxswain faces many difficulties, from the technical superiority required to navigate the course efficiently to the sheer volume of boats on the water. To be successful, it is important that the coxswain stays calm, steers the boat, and gives clear directions despite outside factors.  

Just as a coxswain’s energy permeates the boat, a leader’s demeanor sets the tone for the entire team. By leading with poise and purpose, you inspire confidence and unity among your team members, paving the way for success.  

Leaders in any setting face a myriad of outside influences that can impact team dynamics. Creating a supportive space that enables the team to thrive despite external distractions — whether they be personal struggles, academic pressures, or unforeseen weather challenges — is significant. In my role as coxswain, I use the phrase “keep your head in the boat” to focus my team.  

As a Marine Officer, my section knows that once they walk through the door at work, we are focused and block out all external influences. By fostering a culture of resilience and adaptability, leaders empower their teams to weather any storm and stay focused on the task at hand. 

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Captain Lex Switzer, USMC 

Embrace Individuality 

Understand that your team is made up of individuals who will often require different leadership styles to be successful both as an individual and as a cohesive team. The goal is to get everyone in one boat to do the same thing and work together as a team. Just as each member of a rowing team brings unique strengths and challenges to the boat, individuals in any group setting require tailored leadership to create a cohesive team. This can be difficult to do with one speaker system that amplifies my voice throughout the boat; however, I have learned over the years that my leadership efforts are not constrained by the boat and time on the water.  

Taking time to get to know each member of your team personally, with what I like to call “face-to-face” conversations, to recognize the diversity within your team will enable you to adapt your leadership approach accordingly. Whether you are on the water leading your boat, standing in front of a group of Marines, or in the classroom with students, the same principles apply. 

Ownership of Roles  

In rowing, every seat in the boat carries specific responsibilities crucial to the team’s success. From maintaining balance to setting the pace, each member knows and owns their role, executing it flawlessly. The bow pair is often responsible for the set or balance of the boat. The middle four are referred to as the powerhouse and are tasked with keeping the power aspect of the stroke high. The stroke seat, the person closest to the coxswain, is responsible for setting the rate dictated by the coxswain and does so in a near-perfect manner several thousand times over.  

The coxswain’s job is not only to steer but also lead, taking eight people and creating one unified boat, moving and executing as one unit. When each person takes ownership of their role and its impact on the overall team, this creates buy-in and builds comradery.  

In the Marine Corps, we also have specific responsibilities that contribute to the overall success of the mission. As a Marine Corps Captain, I found that clarity of roles and responsibilities fosters cohesion and effectiveness within the unit. People want to be successful; they want to positively contribute to the team. Whether you’re commanding a boat, leading a squad, or teaching in a classroom, empowering those to embrace their roles not only ensures accountability but also contributes to the collective achievement of goals. 

Leading a team — whether in rowing, the military, or the classroom — is widely accepted as not an easy task. However, applying these three keys to success can help anyone become a more effective leader. Those we lead will feel empowered with clearly defined roles, feed off our positive energy, and ultimately affect the group’s behavior. By navigating external influences with grace and determination, embracing individuality, and having people own their roles, you can empower your team to achieve success together. Use these keys — lead your team.  

This post is promoted content by the United States Marine Corps. It was written by Captain Lex Switzer, USMC. Through our partnership with SHAPE America, the Marine Corps is dedicated to creating change in the lives of coaches and athletes. Whether you are interested in attending one of our Coaches’ Workshops or having a Marine lead physical training with your team, Marines are standing by to assist you as coaches and educators. Semper Fi!

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