Friday, October 16, 2009

Who's the captain of this ship? Well...It depends...

Upon coming to Vanderbilt, I was introduced to the wonderful world of crew. For those unfamiliar, crew is the sport of one coxswain and eight synchronized rowers racing a boat as fast as possible in order to win a regatta. The most important tool needed to become a winning team is effective leadership. Why? Because there is more than one leader on a crew team. There are in fact three layers of leaders. The first is the coach who leads the team by setting goals, providing strategy, and by offering constructive feedback so to improve overall performance. Next is the team captain who keeps morale high by exemplifying good sportsmanship and a team player attitude. Last, there is the coxswain—the position of importance for this blog.

The coxswain is the leader of each individual boat. On land, the coxswain must be as Robert E. Kelley (1988) would say, an ‘effective follower’. He or she must listen carefully to the advice of the coach, observe the behaviors set forth by the captain, and then internalize these messages so to be “enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant” (Kelley 1988 p. 195). However, once the boat is in the water everything changes. The coach watches from the shore, the captain (as a rower) transitions into just another follower, and the coxswain becomes the one and only leader. He or she does the work required--screaming loud and coherent directions to the rowers--to meet the needs of the social situation (Selznick 1975).

Stogdill (1948) says that “leadership is a relation that exists between person in a social situation” (p. 65). Considering crew provides multiple leader/follower relationships, Rost (1991) must add, “the only possible way for people to cope with such multiple relationships is for them to be leaders in some relationships and followers in others” (p.191). The sport of crew helps us understand what Selznick, Stogdill and Ross mean when they say that the role of a leader is situational. For the coxswain’s role of leader or follower is wholly defined and determined by the situation.

The implications of this example of leadership is two-fold. First, the coxswain had to first be an effective follower of higher leveled leaders (coach and captain) before becoming an effective leader. Second, the coxswain’s leadership role was defined within the certain context of the water. This layered and situational example of leadership reminds me of how, in managerial hierarchies, the role of a manager is either leader or follower depending on the context. To upper management, a middle manager is just a follower. However, his subordinates see him as a leader. So, herein lies the crux: in the much more complicated world of management, must one be an effective follower before becoming an effective leader? Can you be an ineffective follower but an effective leader? Or, and here's my favorite, does it just depend on the situation?


  1. Cynthia,

    I always have a hard time trying to tell the difference between what Rost says (leaders must be followers at times and vice versa) and Spillane's theory of distributed leadership.

    Also, I think a person can be an ineffective follower and a good leader, an ineffective leader but a good follower, ineffective at both, and good at both. (Think Venn diagram with a mutually exclusive circle for ineffective leader and ineffective follower).

    There's more to leadership and followership than having the right traits. It's also about fit and timing too - which brings it back to the context or situation.

  2. Cynthia,I would make a comment assuming that we are talking about effective followers and leaders within a context. Then if we take into consideration what Kelly has to say, it seems that one must be an effective follower before one can become an effective leader (for that context) - for example without having the ability to manage self effectively or without building one's competence one cannot be an effective leader. I think in addition to the qualities of effective followers, an effective leader should also have a clear vision, the ability to communicate this vision and influence people.

    Therefore,I disagree with Linda that an ineffective follower can be an effective leader. Of course, if we change the context then things may be different.A person who was an ineffective follower in one context could become an effective leader in another.

    However, I agree that an ineffective leader can be an effective follower (in the same or different context). Again as Kelly says "what distinguishes an effective follower from an ineffective follower is enthusiastic, intelligent and self-reliant the pursuit of an organizational goal." So a person can be an effective follower if he has these abilities...but he may not become an effective leader if he does not have a vision or the ability to influence people.

  3. Cynthia-

    This is an interesting example of leadership, mostly because I'm interested in the dependencies. I knew a lot of people who did crew, and I always curious about the necessities of certain things.

    I guess my question in trying to think about this, is (because I don't know): if you have a team who has been rowing forever, do they still utilize the coxswain as much? Or another way of saying it is: is the coxswain's role increased or decreased based upon the experience/ knowledge of the "followers" (the rowers)?

    To answer your questions- I have to agree with Linda's opinions. I don't think there is a necessary correlation between good at being a follower or a leader. While those two circles intersect, the background/ skills needed for each them MAY be correlated, but don't have to be for success.

    Fun post.

  4. Hey All! Thanks for commenting!

    Linda: I get what you're saying about the similarities between Rost and Spillane's theories of leadership. I'm not certain if it's right but the difference for me is that Rost thinks people switch between defined roles of leadership and followership depending on the context while Spillane believes that there is perhaps a team of leaders working together each with an individual group of followers. I could be way off base though.

    What do ya'll think are the difference between Spillane and Rost?

    Shilpa: I agree with you that it would be difficult for an ineffective follower to be an effective leader. For instance, a sheep or survivor follower in one situation probably couldn't lead in others...could they? But, then again, I could see the alienated follower becoming an effective leader if perhaps it was his vision causing the divergence.

    Chris: To answer your question, I think I should first give some background on the positions in the boat. Rowers concentrate solely on (silently) synchronizing their movements with each other so to move the boat as fast as possible. The coxswain's job is to fix any rower related problems, steer the ship, encourage the rowers, and warn rowers of any upcoming issues (like a boat wave). All of these tasks are performed communicatively by only the coxswain. Thus, I think as a beginner a rower relies more on the coxswain (ie: the coxswain will say "hey Joe, ease up on the pressure" or "get in sync"!) and as he gains knowledge does rely less on the coxswain. However, I think that decline dissipates as the rowers are still constantly reliant on the effective leadership of the coxswain. Last, I think you may be right about the lack of correlation between being effective at leadership and/or followership but, as I don't really know myself, would certainly like to hear other folk's take on this.

  5. I don't know if this is a stretch but what about considering the servant leader in the question of answering whether you have to be an effective follower before being an effective leader? As Smith et al. notes about servant leaders "we are not initially motivated to be leaders, but assume this position in response to the urgings of others and in response to the need for group success" (p.81). Essentially the servant leader must first be an effective follower showing their dedication in putting the interests of others over themselves and being receptive, non-judgmental and allowing opportunities for people to learn and grow. Once they show this effective followership, are then worthy to be brought into a leadership role. Without taking these steps as an effective follower they would not be able to become an effective servant leader.

  6. Erica, I think that is an excellent place to take this conversation. But, I wonder if that is the progression for a servant leader. Do they have to be an effective follower first before being an effective servant leader? Is there a distinct difference in these roles or titles?

    From what we learned from Kelley, the characteristics of an effective follower and effective leader are very much the same (201). Many times it is just the role they are playing depending on the context that distinguishes follower from leader. So, I just wonder what that would mean for someone to have to be an effective follower before being an effective servant leader. Maybe instead, there is just a different perspective coming from the leader.. servant first, then leader. But I am not sure if someone has to prove they are an effective follower before being seen as a effective servant leader.

  7. I would like to address Chris' question regarding whether or not the coxswain's role increases or decreases based upon the experience/ knowledge of the "followers" (the rowers).

    While I was abroad, I learned a lot about the role of a coxswain because I roomed with a girl who was the coxswain for the Harvard crew team. Not familiar with the sport, I asked her lots of questions throughout our roomie experience, and I think the following is applicable to the questions you've raised.

    When she first joined the team as coxswain, she was not very experienced and had to quickly adapt to her new role and learn how to become an effective follower. She looked toward the coach on land and often even relied on the experience of the rowers in the water to essentially guide her in her leadership position. As she grew comfortable in the position, however, she was able to essentially develop her own vision of how she wanted to lead the already experienced rowers, and she was able to actually improve their race times as a result of her strategic planning and effective leadership style. So, in this case, it seems as though her role as coxswain initially decreased as a result of the rowers' experience and increased as she gained more confidence in her role.

    That being said, my roommate's case of increasing her role of coxswain despite the vast experience of her followers (rowers), may be unique to her leadership style. So again... it comes back to everyone's favorite conclusion. I think it all depends on the context of the situation.

  8. Like Allison said, I think that coxswain's role increases or based upon the experience/ knowledge of the "followers". My first year at Vanderbilt I was on the crew team and was a coxswain. I had no experience what so ever and was not sure of my role. I looked a lot to the coach and the captain, as well as the more experienced rowers on the team to help grow in the position. As the season went on, I became a lot more comfortable in the role of being the leader on the water and as I became more comfortable, I was able to be a better leader in the situation.


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