Emily Marsh April 12 2019

3 things James Cracknell can teach us about resilience in leadership

On Sunday April 6th, ex-Olympian James Cracknell became the oldest man ever to win the Boat Race. Since his brain injury in 2010, Cracknell has shown remarkable resilience. In this blog post, we consider what the attributes of resilience are and how they show up in leaders.

Every year in April, Cambridge and Oxford universities go head-to-head in the Boat Race on the Thames. This year, we saw both the men’s and women’s teams from Cambridge university take home the coveted title, for a second year running.

The rivalry between the two universities goes back centuries and the event always draws in a lot of attention. But this year, there is one man in particular that everyone is talking about.

James Cracknell, at age 46, became the oldest man ever to be on the winning team of the Boat Race. As double Olympic rowing gold medallist and six-times world champion, you might say that he gave Cambridge an unfair advantage. Yet, Cracknell has referred to the Boat Race as the greatest challenge of his life.

Cracknell’s story is an extraordinary one. In 2010, when attempting to run, row, and cycle from Los Angeles to New York, he was knocked off his bike and fractured his skull, suffering bruising of the brain and memory loss. The accident left him with epilepsy and changes to his personality.

Throughout his recovery, Cracknell has shown remarkable resilience, to which his ambition to get back to rowing and compete in the Boat Race is a testament.

Just like Cracknell's resilience has seen him overcome huge obstacles, both in the sporting world and in terms of his own health, in the workplace, we need resilient people who are able to deal with the demands placed upon them.

Constant change and increasing customer demands mean building resilient organisations is more important than ever.  But building resilient teams starts from the top. We need resilient leaders who have the strength and courage to lead people through anything they are faced with. 

But what does it mean to be a resilient leader in the workplace? Perhaps Cracknell can teach us a few things...

1. Resilient leaders never give up, even in the most difficult of times

In an interview about how he coped in the aftermath of his accident, Cracknell said, “The accident, it happened to me, but I’m not going to let it define the rest of my life. You think; I may be here, I’ve got to get there, and you plot a pathway to get there. And that is what I did after the accident.”

The true testament of a great leader is not how they perform during the good times, but about how they cope during the most trying times. Leaders with true grit will continue to show strength, courage, and professionalism even when weathering the biggest of crises. And nothing is more rewarding than emerging from the storm as a better leader and a more cohesive team. Resilient people aren't afraid of a challenge - as Cracknell certainly proves.

But, it’s not always easy. It requires courage to confront the reality that something may not work out in the way you had planned, keeping faith that there will be a solution to any problems that arise, and having the guts to carry on even when getting to the goal might seem hopeless. Leaders need to set an example for the rest of the team. It's their role to keep morale high and to empower people to play a part in overcoming obstacles, so that they too don't give up.

2. Resilient leaders have a strong sense of purpose

Cracknell’s Boat Race training wasn’t all plain sailing. A rib injury kept him out of training for a period and left him questioning whether it was worth it. He also had to adapt to new ways of rowing. But he had a clear purpose. He wanted a seat in the blue boat. So he pushed through.

In a recent BBC article, Cracknell was quoted as saying, “There were times in this past six months when I had damaged a rib and I was wondering, ‘what am I doing this for?’ When I was told I was being put in the blue boat, I can honestly say it was as proud a sporting moment as when Jürgen Gröbler sat me down and said ‘you’re going to be in the coxless four’.”

When we understand what’s driving us and why we do what we do, it’s easier for us to endure setbacks because we keep our eyes focused on the goal. This purpose is what allows us to continually put one foot in front of the other.

Leading a team in the workplace is no different. If we know what we are working towards as a team and as a business, we keep that goal in mind, and that is what allows us to push through. However, everyone needs to be on the same page and the strong sense of purpose needs to echo throughout the whole team. Leaders need to keep people focused on where the business wants to be and empower them to be a part of getting it there. 

3. Resilient leaders draw strength from others

Rowing is the ultimate team sport. All team members must move in perfect harmony, with no room for even the smallest of differences between timing and positioning. They must also work together in mind as well as body, allowing the boat to glide through the water with both precision and pace. It's the same in any organisation. Everyone needs to be working together and on the same page - in both behaviour and mindset. 

As Cracknell says, “No one can stand out. No one person can win the race on their own, though any one person can lose it. So it’s about absolute trust in each other: a real trust that they will do their job. And for me, I know that what I will always remember will be waking up on race day, thinking of the crew, knowing that their dreams are in your hands – and your dream is in theirs.”

Resilient leaders remember that success can only be achieved as a team. They tend to have high emotional intelligence and will lift others up to be the best they can be for themselves, the team, and the organisation. Equally, resilient leaders are not afraid of being challenged by people so that they themselves can become better leaders. They ask for feedback, they adapt their behaviour to get the best from people, and they continually work on being the best leader they can be.

From the Olympics, to racing round the South Pole, and then the Boat Race, Cracknell has taken on some remarkable challenges. He's clearly a man with unlimited ambition, drive, and resilience. 

In the workplace, we are always going to need leaders who fit this same description. Organisations will always have to face challenges and disappointment, and we need leaders who not only display resilience themselves, but who can lift others up and allow resilience to ripple out from everyone within the company. 

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