Quotes And Leadership Lessons From The Boys In The Boat

A Reel Leadership Article

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In 1936, the University of Washington’s Junior Varsity crew team did something amazing. The crew team consisted of Don Hume (Jack Mulhern), Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), George “Shorty” Hunt Bruce Herbelin-Earle), Jim McMillin Wil Coban), John ‘Johnny’ White (Tom Varey), Gordy Adam (Joel Phillimore), Charles ‘Chuck’ Day (Thomas Elms), Roger Morris (Sam Strike), cox Bob ‘Bobby’ Moch (Luke Slattery). They beat varsity teams and then went to the Olympics. From there, they won the Olympic games and took home gold medals for the USA.

These boys, not men, competed in one of the most grueling sports imaginable. Most people don’t even know what crewing is. I only knew what crew was because of the ethical clothing boutique my wife shops at and does a side hustle for. 

The University of Washington Junior Varsity crew team in their boat

This inspiring, true story will leave you on your seat. While you know what will happen, you don’t know how it will. 


The Boys In The Boat isn’t only inspiring. It’s healthy food for your mind. You can walk out of The Boys In The Boat with a ton of leadership ideas and principles.

Put your Reel Leadership hat on. We’re diving into the leadership lessons in The Boys In The Boat.

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From The Boys In The Boat

1. Great leaders train:

To get on the crew team for the University of Washington, you had to beat out many other students. In the end, only 8 people would be on the boat. That’s not a large number, especially with those competing for a spot.

Once chosen, the crew team was put through torturous workout regimes to train their bodies and minds. From pushups to situps to jumping jacks, the boys training for crew had to endure physical stress.

There was a reason for this training. It was to teach their body how to use and conserve oxygen properly. Each step of their training was to make their bodies process oxygen in a way that would power them through to victory.

Like the boys in the film, great leaders must train their minds and bodies. You must teach your mind to love things other than constant input and entertainment (though not all entertainment is bad!). You will have to train yourself to push through challenging times.

Train your mind and body. Ensure it’s ready to endure the rigors of leadership. 

2. Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton):

That’s my favorite part.

The crew coaches for the University of Washington made the announcement of who made the crew team. They went up to their offices after the announcement.

Once they got to the door, they heard the team cheer with excitement. These boys made it to the team.

Ulbrickson quipped that this was his favorite part of being a coach: seeing/hearing the excitement of his people.

What’s your favorite part of leadership? Have you ever thought about it?

I believe your favorite part should be the evolution of your team. You get to watch men and women grow their skills, take on new challenges, and become something better.

Find out what your favorite part of leadership is.

3. Coach Al Ulbrickson:

Each seat in the boat has its own purpose.

On a crewing boat, each seat has its own unique purpose. The boat floats smoothly over the water when every seat is working in unison. 

It was amazing to watch this on film in The Boys In The Boat. As each seat did their unique talent, the boat lurched forward. Keeping in their roles, the boat continued to move forward.

Each person on your team has a unique purpose. Discovering that purpose is your job.

When you discover each person’s unique purpose in your organization, watch out. Your team is going to be hard to stop!

4. George Pocock (Peter Guinness):

That’s what practice is for.

George Pocock is the man who built the Husky Clipper, the boat the crew team rowed. Joe Rantz had snuck into the boat storage area when George discovered him. George asked Joe what he thought of the team and how it was all coming together. Joe replied that it was tougher than he expected.

This is when George dropped one of his Yoda-like nuggets of wisdom. George let Joe know that things are hard. But that’s where practice comes in.

The more you practice, whether it’s a specific leadership technique, writing, or an athletic pursuit, the better you become. The less challenging it becomes.

Put in the hours of practice you need to improve. The more you do, the better you’ll be.

5. Sometimes, you have to ignore the advice of experts:

Ulbrickson had told Bobby to stick close to their first competition opponent. To not push themselves. 

Bobby said screw that. He shared what the coach said and what he wanted them to do. Bobby wanted them to show their competition what they were made of.

What happened? The University of Washington’s junior crew team won their first competition and beat the record by nine seconds.

They wouldn’t have won if Bobby had done what the coach had said. They wouldn’t have gone to the Olympics. 

By ignoring the advice of the expert, they rose to greatness.

We all need mentors, experts, and wisdom speakers in our lives. They will share their insights and experiences with us.

What we need to do with that advice is to consider it and how it fits into our lives. Do we follow it to a tee? Or do we strike out on our own and ignore the advice?

Sometimes, ignoring the advice of those you respect will get you further than if you listened.

6. Things may not be better at the next organization:

Joe and his girlfriend Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson) sat in a diner. Joe sees a familiar face outside. It’s his dad, Harry (Alex Newman).

We hear about their backstory. Harry had left Joe at the age of 14 to move out to California. He was hoping for a better life. However, he had returned to Washington a few years later. 

Things in California weren’t much better than they were in Washington.

The allure of jumping ship to head to another organization is tempting. There’s new opportunities, new people, and new challenges. It sounds so exciting.

And it may be…

Or it may be more of the same. You may find yourself in the same situation you were in at the previous organization. Or, you may find out things are worse.

Be prepared for this. If you are, you can easily transition to your next position.

7. Coach Al Ulbrickson:

It’s not about you.

Joe had left the crew team after he couldn’t stay in sync. Coach had asked him if he wanted to continue. He said he wanted off the team.

But then Joe had a change of heart. He wanted back on the team. He wanted his seat back.

Asking Coach Ulbrickson for his seat back, coach told him it’s not about him. It’s about the team, the other people in the boat.

Man, how often do we get this wrong? We think leadership is about us. It’s not about you or me. 

Leadership is about the team. It’s about creating a cohesive unit that can get the job done.

Remember this as you lead. It’s not about you.

8. Different mentors will give different advice:

In the qualifying competition for the Berlin Olympics, multiple teams were competing. Each coach had a different strategy to win.

The film moves between the advice of each coach. You hear each one tell their team something and then the next team coach tells their team something completely different.

What can we take away from this? Each mentor you have will have a different take on leadership. They will offer up differing, sometimes contradictory advice. 

Pick and choose what you listen to, as Bobby did earlier. Find the advice that works for you and your organization. Then follow it.

9. Each team member plays a part in an organization’s success:

The crew team from the University of Washington brings home the gold from the Olympics. After the crew team won, a wreath was placed around the necks of the eight oarsmen and the coxswain. 

No member of the team was left out of this honor. The wreath went around everyone’s neck.

Why? Because each oarsman and the coxswain played a part in the team’s success.

As you lead, remember that each person on your team plays a part in the organization’s success. There’s no I in team. It’s an effort by everyone.

Celebrate every person on your team for their contribution.

10. Elderly Joe Rantz (Ian McElhinney):

We were never eight. We were one.

An elderly Joe Rantz was watching his grandson (Austin Haynes) in a boat. He struggled to steer the boat and wound up on the shore. Joe helped him, and the two began to talk.

His grandson had asked him about the team. Joe realized that it wasn’t about the individual members of the team. The team was one.

This plays into leadership lesson 9 from The Boys In The Boat. While each person plays a part in an organization’s success, they only do that by working as one frictionless unit.

Work to make your team function as one. The closer you can get to this, the smoother your team will function.

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