Coxswain Tips: Fault vs. Responsibility

By Sparks Editorial Staff | May 10, 2013

A long time ago, I stopped feeling surprised when Coach blamed things on me. Coxswains, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If something goes wrong, regardless of what it is, you’re getting yelled at. I’ve never found another youth leadership role that involves taking the blame for everything that happens.

So thank goodness I found the one that does.

When I was in high school, I complained about this. If I got yelled at for failing to bring a watch on the water, fine – my bad. But if the weather turned, or a piece popped off the boat into the water, or a single sculler rowed right into me while I was sitting at attention for a 2k, I still got yelled at. I hated it. It wasn’t fair! After all, those events were not “my fault.”

Here’s the thing, though. Despite the fact that I didn’t want to be blamed for the things that weren’t my fault, I wanted my coach to let me be in charge of my boat. I wanted to keep the fun, independent part of leadership and dispose of the downside. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.

In many of today’s leadership roles, people sort of do that. When things go wrong in an organization, it’s socially acceptable for the leader to point out when the problem was not his or her fault. This is a huge problem. The social acceptability of focusing on blame produces weak leaders who fail to solve problems.

I realized in college that, when I was in charge of a boat, everything that happened in that boat became my responsibility. The equipment, the people, the mission – everything. Responsibility is not the same as fault. Responsibility acknowledges that, even if I do not have complete control over what happens in my boat, it is my boat, and my job is to take care of it. The equipment, the people, the mission – everything. If, somehow, those things are not taken care of, it’s still my boat. I don’t get to push it away like an uneaten plate of soggy peas.

Let’s look at a coaching example to illustrate the point.

Suppose your crew arrives at a regatta site and begins unloading the trailer. A toddler of one of the team parents starts wandering around among the rowers. Your head coach is walking among the boats, carrying a large, black tub full of heavy wrenches and other tools. Your coach can’t see the ground below the tub, so he doesn’t see the toddler run right in front of him. He trips over the toddler and falls forward, crashing right into the middle of his newest, nicest 8+. Coach, tub, boat, and slings all tip over and fall to the ground, and the boat ends up bent in the center, with several cracks and gaping holes. Nine kids needed that boat to race, and unless something gets done, they don’t get to race anymore.

How much would you respect your coach for gathering everyone up and making a point of how the accident was not his fault? You wouldn’t. The exercise wastes a bunch of time that could be spent fixing the boat or trying to find a replacement, and it doesn’t change the fact that, unless the situation gets fixed, the coach has failed to execute his greater mission – to get all of his rowers on the water and racing. Nine rowers are sad and race-less, regardless of whose “fault” it is. If coaches cannot try to escape blame without looking like weak leaders, why should coxswains be able to do it? Exactly. They shouldn’t.

I am the coxswain. It is my responsibility to give my rowers the greatest possible opportunity to win their race. My rowers and coach have to place their trust in me to uphold that responsibility. If, for whatever reason, they don’t get that opportunity, I better try to fix it and prevent it from ever happening again.

After all, leadership is not about blame – it’s about the people you serve. I serve my rowers. If they don’t get what they need – the greatest possible opportunity to win their race – then that hurts me, regardless of whose fault it is, because I have to see them disappointed. Blame isn’t even a part of it. I want to fulfill my responsibility because I want the boat to succeed.

This lesson makes you an exceptional leader in your non-coxing life because most leaders don’t understand the difference between fault and responsibility. While they should be in the trenches fixing the problem, they’re making a spectacle of themselves to convince the world that it’s not their fault – and the mission still fails. These leaders’ skills at accepting responsibility are weak. Luckily for you, coxing has strengthened your ability to do this. You can step forward, accept responsibility, and figure out how to make things better. Regardless of whose fault it was, people notice when you do this.

So if a shoe comes off a foot stretcher mid-practice and your coach starts yelling at you, recognize that he is lamenting the failure of the mission – to execute this practice and make the boat faster. That’s your mission. So rather than whine that it’s not your fault, salvage the mission. Get out your electrical tape and MacGyver a solution. If electrical tape doesn’t work, add a roll of duct tape to your arsenal for next time.

Also, let coach yell at you. You are the leader; you can get yelled at without losing your cool. Maybe that rower can’t. And that’s not your fault either – but if that rower gets flustered and cannot row well for the rest of practice, then again the mission has failed. So, to save the mission, you take the beating. Sometimes when I couldn’t justify coach yelling at me, even with the responsibility argument, I’d tell myself this. Regardless of whether this was true, it helped me get over my anger and carry on. So feel free to use this emergency psychological solution when you need it.

Inspirational Quotes for Coxswains:

#1: "It may not be my fault, but it is my responsibility"
- Donovan Campbell, United States Marine Corps

#2: "Don't find fault. Find a remedy."
- Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company

- Chelsea Dommert