Many years ago my friend, Susa Holt, told me I had to meet CrisMarie Campbell, an Olympic rower. I could hardly wait to hear first hand what it was like to be an Olympian!
Yet, when I asked CrisMarie about the Olympics, she almost bit my head off, saying “I don’t like to talk about that – I was a loser!”
I was a bit stunned. I know all to well how our heroes are often the masters of self-hate! Fortunately, I met her as she was just heading into a Come Alive, and I figured this was a ripe area for her to do some great work.
She did. Over the years, I have been a witness to CrisMarie’s reclaiming her Olympian.
Today is a new chapter. Her collegiate and national team coach made the headlines this month. His long tenure at the University of Washington ended when the current team of rowers challenged his leadership style.
Here is the link to the Seattle Times article: Firing of UW Rowing Coach
CrisMarie caught the news and wanted to reach out to the rowers. The headlines presented a story line that seemed to imply the biggest issue was “an age gap” between the coach and his rowers. The paper even went so far as to imply may be the rowers were pampered. Really?
Well, CrisMarie had a long history with Bob and wasn’t about to stay silent. She wrote an opinion letter to the sports editor of the Seattle Times. He opted not to publish it.
I like that CrisMarie spoke up.
I like that she reflected both the brilliance AND the iron-fisted misuse of power that is all to often called leadership.
Mostly I love that she challenged the real issue, Bob did not want feedback and that is simply not leadership.
Below is her opinion. It is one woman’s story and perspective. Regular readers know, that I am a big believer that there is never one side to any story.
However, I also believe silence in the face of popularity and power are deadly in so many ways.
CrisMarie’s Opinion Letter, December 11, 2015
I am compelled to speak because of the apparent prevailing opinion that Bob Ernst was an excellent coach who deserved a better send off. No doubt Bob made Washington rowing more successful; however, as a leader of people, he failed.
First let me speak to my own direct experience with Bob. I rowed at Washington from 1982-1986, won the ’84 and ‘85 National Championships, and was the ’85 stroke and Team Captain. I went on to a silver medal win at the 1987 World Championships and then to the 1988 Olympics – all with Bob as my coach. I was, by many people’s standards, a winning rower. I was strong, smart, disciplined and hard-working. I credit Bob with making me a successful rower.
Bob is brilliant and was a revolutionary rowing coach– but not because of his leadership style. While he advanced Washington and Women’s Rowing, both at the collegiate and national level, Bob was not an effective leader of people.
In my six years of rowing, I only lost two official competitive races, and yet I walked away feeling like a loser. Why is that? My experience with Bob was that I was only as good as my latest win on the water. His strategy included blaming rowers for losses, and when we did lose, treating us, I felt, as unworthy human beings. He also used ultimatums to drive compliance.
When I injured my back training for the Olympics I considered missing one practice of our regular “two-a-day” sessions. Bob yelled: “either she’s in the boat every day or she’s not in the boat at all!” I got in the boat. While the choice to get in that boat was mine, it is important to underscore the power a coach has over team members to make them perform. And when we lost at the Olympics he blamed me for losing the race by getting in the boat with injuries. Really?
His pronouncement of blame was demoralizing in 1988, and I was shocked to hear him repeat it ten years later. When a coach or leader devalues the team his power becomes abusive and the coach ceases to lead.
As a result of my experience with Bob, I have dedicated my career to helping business leaders produce high performing teams that are both smart (“winning”) and healthy (people matter). Team success is often a result of the leader’s willingness to step out of the “command and control” style and get feedback from the team. This drives team engagement and better team results long-term.
In reading the details of what transpired with Bob and the team, he seemed unwilling to be either vulnerable or curious with the team. Bob could not find a way to use the conflict to create a better outcome both for the team and himself. It wasn’t the job of the UW Administrators to do that, it was his job as a leader.
Marlow Mizera, the coxswain who spoke up to Bob, is a hero of mine. She is a leader. She had the courage to stand up to the most powerful coach in Washington Rowing. These women wanted to give their coach feedback on the impact of his style; they wanted to work with him. Unfortunately, he was unwilling to lean in and hear the feedback, which is sad. They did something I wish I could have done 30 years ago.
This is not about an age gap between Bob and the new generation of rowers. This issue has gone on a long time – it’s about confusing iron-fisted power with leadership.
I do wonder if Bob had been willing to hang in, hear, and honor some honest feedback, whether he and the team could have turned this conflict into a win for both him and the Washington Women Rowers.