What We're Watching...and Re-reading

Bruce Leamon

We are fascinated by stories of victory against all odds. We love tales of good over evil and take delight in seeing the underdog come out on top. We are inspired when we see “mere mortals” accomplish more than anyone can reasonably expect. And, we love to see people succeed without compromising their truth and integrity.

The recent Olympics in Rio, like prior games, gave us a front-row seat for just such experiences, showcasing teamwork and individual achievement at levels that far exceed the expectations we typically set for “normal” people. In fact, there is always something very special about the Olympics that excites our own potential. And one Olympic event in particular, the games of 1936, I still find remarkable when I consider all that was achieved in spite of the greatest of odds.

A few years ago I read the book Boys in the Boat and shared my impressions in an issue of this newsletter. In it I wrote that although the author, Daniel James Brown, may not have intended to write a leadership book about The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, in telling this incredible Personal Best story it worked out that way. And now we all have the opportunity to revisit this inspiring tale of how challenging, modeling, inspiring, encouraging, and enabling propelled one scrappy eight-man team of rowers out of the University of Washington to Olympic Gold in Hitler’s Berlin.

Inspired by Brown’s book, the Weinstein Company is said to be planning to release a new movie about this 1936 Olympic team that will help us continue to celebrate human potential, highlighting the joyful experience of achievement that only comes from accomplishing something that is “impossible.” And if you don’t want to wait for the movie, a fascinating documentary, The Boys of ’36, aired recently as part of PBS’ American Experience series and can be viewed online at pbs.org.

What I love about this story is no doubt true for others as well: we love to see people win when we believe that they deserve to win. This is especially true of the eight-man crew that won the Gold Medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Team USA was comprised of young men who had been raised in poverty, men who had been—quite literally—“thrown away” by families. In general, these young men were very different from the privileged and wealthy athletes that dominated the sport. This team did not take steroids. Wealth did not “buy” anyone a seat on the team. They did not use illegal equipment. They did not sabotage their competitors.

In addition, the global backdrop for our Boys in the Boat is important to understand in order to fully appreciate all that they achieved. In 1936, the United States was still entrenched in an economic depression. Stalin’s Great Purge had begun. West China was in famine. Most importantly, Hitler’s Germany had violated the Treaty of Versailles, while the world watched, and the 1936 Berlin Olympics had been designed as a skillfully crafted propaganda event to showcase the global superiority of Nazi Germany and the Aryan people.

Yet in spite of some very steep odds, in front of Hitler and the world, our USA eight-oar crew beat Germany and all competitors in an intense and very close race. Their victory in Berlin demonstrated that leadership and integrity, the ability to overcome conflict, and a commitment to a greater good were key factors for success in the Olympics and beyond. In essence, The Five Practices were central to their success.

I encourage you to see The Boys of ’36, read the book, and when the movie comes out grab some popcorn and enjoy an inspiring story that celebrates our past and reminds us all of what true teamwork and individual achievement is all about. For an enhanced learning experience, put on your “3D Leadership Challenge Goggles” as you watch.

To learn more, you can also check out this Facebook page dedicated to this inspiring true story: http://www.facebook.com/TheBoysInTheBoat/.


Bruce Leamon, M.A. is President of Leamon Group, Inc. and a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge. An ICF Master Certified Executive Coach, MCC, with 20+ years of executive experience with a Fortune 100 technology corporation, he has worked extensively facilitating complex corporate alliances, transforming teams, and developing both individuals and organizations with measurable results. He can be reached at bruce@leamongroup.com.

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