Feather and Square: The Catch in Life and Leadership

By: Inna Ulanova

Rowing is an interesting analogy in life and leadership. Why? Because in order to succeed, you must navigate between two opposites in order to create momentum. These two modalities are “Feather” and “Square.”

To square is to turn the oar so that its blade is perpendicular to the water, and to feather is to turn the blade out of and moving parallel to the water on the way back to the catch. The two strokes work together to create “a catch” that accelerates the boat forward, while you, ironically, sit backwards throughout the entire journey. To lead the boat effectively, you must operate between these two strokes in rotation and with equal focus. Otherwise, you go in circles, or you capsize.

In rowing, you focus on prepping your blade early in order to be ready for a fast catch and to be in sync with everyone else on the boat, keeping your gaze forward, witnessing how far you’ve gone (not how much further you have yet to go) and being present in the moment. So a question for leadership is:

Do you find yourself operating more in “Square” (creating the force or momentum as the blade pushes through the water) or in “Feather” (bringing the oar back, gliding across the water, in preparation for the catch?)

Even the two verbs alone, “push” and “glide” paint a picture. A “Square” Leader could be seen as one who focuses strategically on the hard KPIs and OKRs of the company. Did we hit our metrics? Are we on track with sales? The “Feather” Leader, on the other hand, could be seen as one who focuses on the company’s morale. Are my people happy, safe and engaged? Am I helping to empower them? 

In leadership, we must recognize that these two types of strokes (let’s call them, mindsets) are symbiotic in relationship. To be an effective leader, we operate in between “Feather” and “Square,” on a daily basis. And if we don’t, we run the risk of “catching a crab” and getting thrown off. 

Here are four reminders on how to create a successful catch in life and leadership:

Prep your blade.

When we switch between the two stroke modalities, we have to remember that both are equally important. The catch is when we place the blade in the water after recovery. Like in life, if you prepare the blade early for the catch, it is much easier for the blade to enter the water. However if we catch too soon, and are only focused on squaring out our blades, we might “catch a crab” where our oars get stuck, and the whole boat is thrown off. 

No one intends for it to happen, but when we’re thrown off, the goal is to realign the rhythm of the team and reconnect to the mission and vision to keep moving forward. Next time you feel like your boat is rocking, focus on perfecting your “feather” by slowing down the pace. Give time and space not only to yourself, but for your team as well to get back in sync with each other.

Leadership requires followership.

If you’re charging up the hill in the field of battle, and you look behind you to find no one there – you are not leading. Leadership requires followership. As leaders, our days are filled with opportunities to row with both strokes, to focus on people (Feather) and results (Square,) at the same time. 

“A good shell has to have life and resiliency to get in harmony with the swing of the crew.”

― Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

At Reservoir, we have seen many leaders come and go, who at times struggle to understand how to build team morale or engage their workforce. Oftentimes, it has to do with a specialized leader that has a strong sense of direction (what needs to get done) but little know-how on how to build a team (what inspires courage and trust.) It’s clear in conversation that the “Square” seems to be present in their leadership style, but they are missing the “Feather.” This leader does not have the full motion of both strokes to propel the company forward.

The best reminder in this case is: leadership requires followership. To glide in parallel with the water is as beautiful as it sounds. The “Feather” symbolizes vulnerability, transparency, love, beauty and surrender. To have followers, we must lead with love and transparency. We surrender ourselves to the team, and learn to listen non-defensively and actively when we ask questions. We embrace that the vision is shared, and we focus intently on keeping everyone together throughout the journey.

That’s what the “Feather” stroke feels like. It’s not only about the recovery, it’s about the preparation for the catch. 

Be the coxswain and the rower.

In a row boat, there is also the coxswain. As the leader, you may be rowing in the boat, or leading from the stern as the coxswain. In the latter, you can see where the team is going, and the team can see where you’ve been. The coxswain is responsible for race strategy, the safety of the crew and equipment, and ultimately, for ensuring that every single rower knows exactly what to do and when to do it.

The crew places the highest level of trust in the coxswain, understanding the importance of their role in contributing to the whole.

“Coxswains are part visionary, part strategist, part coach and always operating within a predictive mindset and factoring each nuance.”

In life and leadership, there are lessons that can be learned from both perspectives: being the coxswain and rowing the boat

You must understand what it feels like to row with the crew, unable to see where you’re going, in order to lead and be a coxswain for the team. It starts with an empathetic understanding and awareness between the dichotomy of push vs. glide, taking the team one stroke closer to the finish line.

10 strokes at a time.

Speaking of strokes, instead of focusing on the 200+ strokes that it’ll take to “finish the race” (metaphorically, as we all know there never is a true finish), rowers tend to focus on 10 strokes at a time. During tough times, not only is it critical to have a clear vision and goal, the goal also needs to be broken down into smaller manageable parts. Otherwise, it becomes daunting and intimidating to imagine all the strokes required at once. 

The key to success in leading with presence is to start feeling each stroke, one at a time, as you disconnect from the physical struggle, and start to connect to your inner drive and courage, learning to row from the heart

When the going gets tough, you can always remind yourself that you can do ten more strokes. And before you know it, you’re there. 

“How do you eat an elephant?” – one bite at a time, right?”

To create a successful catch in life and leadership, try rowing. 

When you focus on each stroke on your leadership journey with intention, you’ll learn the dance between “Feather” and “Square” and will begin to lead in life, love and leadership with better self-awareness and more forgiveness. We will all make mistakes, and each stroke then becomes a lesson.

Thank you to Tracy Falkenthal, for taking me out to row for the very first time in my life. Your coaching and guidance turned our day of rowing into a leadership lesson.

Tracy is on a mission to make rowing a more inclusive and diverse sport — getting everyone to row. An introduction to rowing as a teen in California completely changed the trajectory of Tracy Falkenthal’s life. She has spent the years since paying it forward as a member of the Army National Guard, a firefighter, a personal trainer and health coach, and rowing coach.

Learn more about Tracy’s leadership and diversity mission here: https://www.steadystatenetwork.com/podcast/s2ep5-tracy-falkenthal 

If you are in the midst of navigating unfamiliar waters, come visit our Ghost Ranch retreat in October 2023, The Leader’s Quest | Navigating the Essential Self.

The retreat will provide you with an opportunity to connect with your purpose, cause and vision, as you move into the next phase of your leadership journey.

Let’s build something awesome together.

You have a vision.
We have a way to get you there.