“Blades square,” the coach yelled from the Boston Whaler as he increased the speed on his outboard motor, pursuing the eight man boat as we gained speed. I sat in four-seat, right in the middle of the engine room, the place for the taller, heavier rowers. The eight man team reluctantly complied with the coach’s order and rowed across the Long Island Sound, NYAC jerseys on our backs and the muggy, humid early summer morning sun reflecting in the water, practicing for national championships.
Most of the time, oarsmen feather their oars - rotating the blades to be parallel to the water as they move through the air, helping the boat run on an even keel. Holding the blades square decreases the margin for error from a few inches to a few quarters of an inch. If anyone in the boat splashes their oar in the water, the delicate balance of the boat is upset, teammates grumble and the boat slows dramatically.
In college, we rowed blades square only infrequently. It was a difficult technique drill. At NYAC, blades square was the norm. The coach demanded blades square all the time. Before races, after races, at 5am when we pushed off the dock to start practice and and 8am when we returned, dog-tired.
The blades square mentality pervaded the rest of our practices. Coach held us to standards higher than we expected to hold ourselves. Because he demanded blades square, we demanded it from ourselves. And it became a matter of pride.
I’ll never forget those first days rowing blades square, my knuckles bloodied from hitting the gunwales each time an oar touched the water and the boat balance collapsed to one side. Nor will I forget the rest of the summer when blades square became routine and eventually second nature. Or the weight silver medal hanging around my neck as I stood on the podium.
One of the entrepreneurs I’m lucky enough to work with has an expression for this idea that I love: “every damn day.” It’s the battle cry for 2013 for his company. It’s a refrain for excellence day in day out, through the dark cold winter and the lazy dog days of summer.
Whatever you call it, rowing blades square or every damn day, the idea is the same. Leaders have to demand excellence from their teams and drive teams to expect excellence from themselves. Every damn day.