Desire to Action

It is impossible to overstate the achievements of this third Global Summit by Womensphere. Analisa spoke of “socializing ideas” and the laws of physics, especially the laws of attraction and inertia. What we experienced is the constitutive power of language: together – the members of the event team, presenters and moderators, and all of us participants – we spoke a culture into being. Kavita Ramdas put it like this: “I just made a community of sisters.” Those 48-hours was an instance of planning coming alive, as expressed by one of the event team members (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch).

Womensphere with Newsweek Global Summit
Manhattan (NYU Kimmel Center & Goldman Sachs)

“I am honored and inspired and intrigued.”

Nina summed up the third Global Summit from her role as a member of the event team. Sarah described how positive everyone was behind the scenes, which was elaborated upon by Nancy as “so much energy and spirit put into action….[this event] was about doing, not just cheering.” Vanessa emphasized everyone’s generosity and authenticity, summed up by Robin as “passion with a splash of compassion.” Was it Aidan who was so eager for the final round of acknowledgments to end? She also made sure that Claude received special recognition for superb orchestration of the nuts-and-bolts of a flawless large group event for several hundred women who just want to be allowed to row.

“Loving good, boys!”

The Maud Scientist shared her version of “Good boys, good!” with us while introducing the Innovation Roundtable after the first morning’s series of keynotes. Shelly Lazarus had told us about a presentation she had attended about the rowing team at Cambridge, which was studied for five months by cultural researcher Mark de Rond en route to beating historic rival Oxford for the first time in seven years. A mere ten days before the ultimate competition, the team made the unprecedented replacement of the male coxswain with a woman.

In 2008 Cambridge was coxed by Rebecca Dowbiggin (a Ph. D. candidate in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic) who tips the scales at a slight 102 pounds and stands 5’4” tall. Her teammates were all a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier.Rebecca is not capable of making a meaningful contribution to the speed of the boat through the water by pulling on an oar. But then, that’s not what she’s in the boat to do. She has a different purpose. The rowers sit in the boat, oars in their hands, with their backs to the finish line. The cox sits in the stern and faces forward, the only member of the team who can see where the boat is going, who can adjust for wind or current or course. The cox shouts encouragement, and coordinates tempo and teamwork. She can’t win without strong oarsmen, but they can’t win without her either. Without mutual trust and respect the team will surely lose, if not drown.

Shelly told us that Professor de Rond attributed the team’s risky group decision to three factors:

  • the breadth of nuanced calibration of the team,
  • the depth of trust established on the basis of intimacy generated by cultivating the capacity for such finely-tuned calibration, and
  • the distinct difference in leadership style of each cox.

In a phone conversation earlier today, Professor de Rond clarified these lessons, explaining that the palpable difference between the two cox – as felt and experienced by the rowers – was that the male cox made the rowers nervous by exhorting them too much, generating a sense that something was off. Rebecca demonstrated more trust, synchronizing with their experience, and keeping focused on technical calls which allowed them to feel as if everything was proceeding according to plan. She had used the special call, “Good boys, good!” once during practice and – noticing the extremely positive response, did not use it again. Instead, she held that call in reserve, until at one very strategic and challenging moment in the race, she let it out. And the boys responded. No gender claims are being made based on this tiny sample (although basic heterosexual biology probably played some role). Professor de Rond did say, however, that “She used her femininity in a very clever way.” The strategic use of praise, tucked within a superb performance of technical calls that kept the team settled and steady, provides a strong undergirding for the main point made for us gathered at Womensphere. In the words of Shelly Lazarus,

“she just let them row.”[i]

“Leaders come in all sizes.”

Analisa Balares made the comment teasingly as she stepped onto the speakers’ box that had been removed to accommodate Shelly’s height. 😉 Womensphere is Analisa’s brainchild. It is not surprising that she pulled together a team, including an impressive alliance with Newsweek, and designed this Global Summit exemplifying Shelly’s recommendations for effective and powerful leadership: hire strong people, mean the questions that you ask, be generous – know that you cannot say thank you often enough, invite people who work for you into the decision-making process, share the glory, make problems bite-sized, celebrate successes and problems together, be passionate, and act in faith that the better people are then the less they want to be managed.

As I intuit my way through the upcoming series of blog entries attempting to distill the vast reserve of wisdom pooled during this incredible gathering, I keep thinking about the influence of the researcher on the Cambridge rowing team. Shelly told us that team members, in the beginning, kept trading technical competence for social competence. In other words, like all groups, the early stages of development are composed mainly by politeness and gravitation toward similarities. Usually, no one wants to be the first to rock the boat. Many groups never acknowledge, let alone resolve the roots of various tensions, choosing instead to try and leapfrog over them, as if by ignoring differences they will either go away or – at least! – not interfere with the ultimate performance or outcome of the group’s goal. Is it possible that the fact of being studied encouraged the team to become more forthcoming and bond so well that they could disregard conventional wisdom about the timing of crew changes and (possibly) even violate gender norms of male/athletic comraderie?

Passion: Collective Consciousness and Coordinated Action

It is impossible to overstate the achievements of this Summit. Analisa spoke of “socializing ideas” and the laws of physics, especially the laws of attraction and inertia. What we experienced is the constitutive power of language: together – the members of the event team, presenters and moderators, and all of us participants – we spoke a culture into being. Kavita Ramdas put it like this: “I just made a community of sisters.” Those 48-hours composed an instance of planning coming alive, as expressed by one of the event team members (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch).

The Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin recognized the centripetal and centrifugal forces of language in use. Centripetally, Analisa gathered us together, attracting and holding us in orbit around a central core in order to share vision and perpetuate faith in our potential to collectively come together and generate solutions to crucial problems in order to preserve the planet for ourselves, our children, and theirs. Now, centrifugally, we scatter to the ends of the globe yet remain connected by the extent to which we claim the identities and relationships forged through the cultural communion of living by a common code. One of the beauties of this code is its inherently inclusive nature. Mustafa exhibited this in droll fashion: “I’m not your typical womensphere woman.” Then he exhorted:

“Keep in touch. Stay with the program.”


[i] FYI, I made an interesting discovery while searching for a cool link or two to embellish Shelly’s story. I spent about twelve hours worrying that Shelly had been hoodwinked!  Or perhaps heard what she wanted to hear? (Only because I’ve been known to be guilty of this, myself: its that desire thing. Ahem.)  I found myself in the uncomfortable position of finding several references to this research – none of which mentioned the female coxswain. Yes, the team chose social intelligence over technical competence, but in generic reports the emphasis was on the replacement of one of the rowers, two weeks in advance of the race. In a brief article in the Cambridge’s journal, Research Horizons (2007, p. 30), a “socially gifted oarsman” was chosen over another who was technically closer to the ideal individual performance because of the team’s “unremitting search for rhythm.” This video of the researcher, Marc de Rond, explains how social intelligence – being able to both cooperate with & compete against each other – is crucial to team performance. No mention of Rebecca.

What to do? Embarrass Shelly? Upset everyone? Rewrite the blog so as not to include any mention of this theme or its impact upon us?  Imagine my relief when I read Professor de Rond’s response to my inquiry this morning, explaining the details and clarifying that Rebecca’s role on the team “came out in my teaching more than the actual book.” I am even more intrigued, now!  It seems to me the struggle of leadership is one of calibrating rhythm, tempo, and unexpected perturbations. We need more men like those Cambridge rowers, able to choose the group’s goals ahead of the individual. And we need more publicity and public discourse about mixed-gender accomplishments!

The whole story is presented in de Rond’s account, The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Race Crew. Professor de Rond and I spoke a bit about why Rebecca’s part of the story was less emphasized, and I think there are important points to be learned from this, too.  The two men who were replaced were quite disappointed – as anyone would be who has trained long and hard for one specific purpose. The replacement of the oarsmen was more controversial – and informative, in de Rond’s view – of the importance of social competence even for teams with one hard linear goal: to win The Boat Race. In other words, the omission in the media isn’t only about sexism. There’s care for those who didn’t make the cut, too.

2 thoughts on “Desire to Action”

  1. Conference sounds interesting… but it is your storytelling which captivates. Great writing Steph, you had me rowing in that boat too!

  2. Michelle, you sure know how to make a grrl feel good! Thanks 🙂

    The difference, I keep thinking, between being a coxswain in a Boat Race and a participant at Womensphere, is that a rowing race really is a time and space de-limited event. The challenge of calibration among rowers, and with the rowers and the cox, is geared toward the achievement of a single culminating event.

    Womensphere, on the other hand, is dense with goals distributed randomly in timespace. Some trajectories are parallel, others transverse. Most are moving at somewhat different speeds, each requires varying degrees of internal calibration (such as among the event team), while also promoting coordination with other teams and individuals composing the larger whole.

    The effectiveness of the balancing act is what gave the Global Summit so much verve! Now, if we can all keep rowing….!

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