“A Mindful Leadership Story by Christopher Stevenson”
During my junior year of college, I became enamored with the sport of rowing and decided to give it a try. I signed up for the rowing club, attended practices, and set an ambitious goal of earning a seat on the “first boat” – that is the top tier rowers on the team – particularly challenging given I was competing against others who had been rowing since freshman year or earlier.
I started training and continued to fall in love with the sport of rowing. Not only did my body become strong and lean, but I enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow rowers and the beautiful sunsets along the river. However, I was not yet aware of the true gift rowing would teach me.
In order to earn a spot on the “first boat,” we needed to pass a 2500 meter test. Because I was already a junior and a novice, I was nervous and fearful I would fail. My goal was to finish in sub 8:40 (8 minutes, 40 seconds).
After a considerable amount of physical training, it was now time to take the test and see if I could earn a spot on “first boat.” So, with butterflies in my stomach, I took a deep breath and started rowing. The first 1500 meters were a breeze and I remember thinking, “Wow! I’m at a sub 8:30 pace – that’s even better than my sub 8:40 goal!”
Unfortunately, things quickly changed. My heart was beating faster than I could take, and my legs were on fire…In other words, I was well past my pain threshold, and my mind took over – and not in a good way. I could not mentally push through the pain and hang in there. And, with just 700 meters to go, I began to slow down. I started gasping for air and could not complete the test. I have never forgotten the look of disappointment in Coach Bob’s eyes or the feeling of being a complete failure.
Rowing was no longer just about sunsets and having a good time. I would have to change my focus in order to meet my goal. After spending several days moping around and contemplating quitting, I realized failure was not an option and decided to give it my all.
I shifted my focus from the physical to include mental preparation. I practiced rowing, but more importantly, how to calm my mind and manage through the physical discomfort. I visualized successfully achieving my goal. I was prepared for the next opportunity, mentally and physically, and earned a spot on the “first boat.”
This turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Not only did I learn a valuable lesson about resilience and mental preparation, but I also went on to have a rewarding, competitive rowing career during college and beyond. The challenges I faced during my college rowing years are not unlike the challenges I face today in the business world and raising two daughters.
As a team leader, my focus continues to be on how I mentally prepare myself and manage my own discomfort, in order to do what’s best for our team and the business. Focusing on “how I show up,” for others and myself, is as important as understanding the business issues. Taking time out each day to reflect and renew has made it possible for me to remain calm, centered, and manage through tough situations and decisions.
As the father of two daughters who focus on their academics, participate in competitive sports, music, and other extra-curricular activities, I try to instill the value of meeting challenges head on and never giving up. I remind them that we often learn more from our failures than our successes … and to ask the important questions:
- How dedicated are we?
- How resilient?
- And, ultimately, how mentally prepared are we to face the tough moments, to remain calm and centered, and to achieve our goals?
I continue to be inspired by Chris’s leadership style. He always shows up calm and grounded during challenging situations, and he is always kind.
Christopher Stevenson is head of research and development for a reputable risk services firm and works in the areas of risk analytics, security and software development. He is an avid athlete, still training in rowing (though sometimes in his garage!), biking and running. He lives in New Jersey and enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters.