Leadership Lessons from the Pool Deck

Something I read a few years ago made me determined to acquire a new skill or habit every year as a hedge against calcification of my mind and skills as I get older. One year, I started going to yoga classes. This year, I decided to do The New York Times crossword every day (a real bonus to my wife, who gets exciting, near-daily updates on new speed records or the status of my daily completion streak).

Without a doubt, the most rewarding new thing I started doing in recent years was getting certified as a USA Swimming stroke & turn official. My daughter swims year-round, so I spend a lot of hours at the pool anyway and officiating is a good way to discharge my volunteer duties and give back to the sport. Besides, as my daughter likes to tell me, I’m just the kind of sadist who loves shattering the dreams of 9-year-olds by disqualifying them for failing to properly execute a flip turn.

In all seriousness, though, there are a surprising number of leadership lessons to be gained from hours on the pool deck (and plenty of time to think about them).

  1. Call what you see and see what you call. This is one of the first lessons they teach you as an apprentice. Except at championship meets, officials almost always monitor multiple lanes of swimmers in each race. This means that, for example, you don’t always see every swimmer completely execute their transition from backstroke to breaststroke during the individual medley. A lot of times you might see something out of the corner of your eye, or just catch the very end of a turn that seems like it might have involved a rule violation. Though your instinct is to call a violation, you’re taught to fight that instinct unless you are certain that you saw (and can see in your mind’s eye) exactly what happened and what rule was broken.

    Now take that same idea into real life (in particular, into our current political debates) and think about how many times we hear or are told about some sort of second- or third-hand injustice or wrongdoing. How often do we jump to an outraged conclusion, even when we were not actual witnesses to the incident and have not gathered information from everyone who was involved or maybe have been given all our information about the incident from a source that has their own bias?

  2. Watch the empty lanes. As I noted, officials often must watch four lanes at a time. When you get a heat where only one lane is occupied, that’s a great opportunity to just dial in and focus on giving that one swimmer some high-quality officiating, right?


    Fairness to all swimmers at the meet actually requires that you divide your attention between the one swimmer you have and the three empty lanes that contain nothing but water. In a full heat, with all four of your lanes occupied, each swimmer should only get 25% of your attention. So why should a single swimmer receive 100% scrutiny in their heat? As counter-intuitive as it is, fairness demands that the official watch empty lanes for three-quarters of the race.

  3. Ugly but legal is still legal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a swimmer thrash his way toward me like he may not make it to the end of his 100 butterfly heat, started to put my hand up to signal a violation and then checked myself by asking, What specific rule is being violated here?

    Just because a swimmer’s stroke looks unconventional or is horribly inefficient doesn’t always mean that it’s a rule violation. On deck, we refer to this as “ugly but legal,” and it applies equally to real life leadership. As I’ve often heard Dave Redding say, a mediocre plan executed with passion and intensity often trumps a technically perfect plan executed half-heartedly.

    A similar ugly-but-legal rule applies to leaders and delegation. As we tell folks when we teach classes on shared leadership, a leader who is able to delegate a task with the knowledge that it will be performed 75 to 80 percent as well as the leader would have is a great leader! It might not be done as perfectly as you would have, but that ability to delegate and clear your time for other things is a huge win!


Tim Whitmire