Coxswain Leadership

The Head of the Charles Regatta is often referred to as “The Rowers Christmas” – a time when rowers of all ages, from around the globe, gather in Cambridge, Massachusetts for their annual international reunion. From youth to senior adults, college and university teams, and representatives from regional and citywide boat clubs, thousands of rowers and their fans descend upon the city of Boston and neighboring Cambridge to race on the legendary Charles River. It’s a beautiful site for all spectators who line the river from end to end to witness this unique sport.

My wife and I recently met some of the rowers who raced the previous day. They gave us the inside story about the history of the race, the significance of it for rowers worldwide, the demanding schedule for preparation, and even showed us their blistered hands…with pride and joy! We were delighted to hear about the regatta from those who experience it first hand, and have done so for many years. Since it was a gorgeous weekend in New England to race this October, they compared it with previous years when heavy rains, blistering temperatures (both highs and lows), and challenging river conditions, made the race all the more challenging. This year all the elements combined together to create a positive experience for all.

The person I enjoyed chatting with the most was the “coxswain” – who happened to be the smallest one in the group. This is the person who huddles down low and issues commands to the rowers, who are turned the opposite way and provide instructions to the rowers to ensure racing strength and speed for the boat. Those in singles and doubles competition don’t have a coxswain, and need to navigate the accuracy of their races on their own. But, in boats with teams of four or eight rowers, a coxswain is essential for guiding them across the water toward the finish line safely.

A most unusual name, coxswain is the person in charge of navigating and steering the boat. The etymology of the word comes literally from “boat servant” since it comes from cox, a coxboat or other small vessel kept aboard a larger ship, and swain, which is an Old English term meaning boy or servant. In rowing, the coxswain sits in either the bow or the stern of the boat (depending on the type of boat) and verbally controls the boat’s steering, speed, timing, and fluidity. The primary duty of a coxswain is to ensure the safety of those in the boat. In a race setting, the coxswain is tasked with motivating the crew as well as steering as straight of a course as possible to minimize the distance to the finish line. Coxswains are also responsible for knowing proper rowing technique and running drills to improve technique.

All who work with leaders and teams, like we do at Leadership Transformations, can quickly derive the association of coxswain leadership to servant leadership. To be a good coxswain, you work from a smaller placement in the boat and sit lower than the rowers (exercising humility), must keep your eyes and ears open for safety sake (be shepherd-like and protective), serve as a motivator of those doing the rowing (providing encouragement), and give guidance to those on the front line of the competition (coaching and attending), in order for the boat and its rowers to successfully complete the race (offering persevering hope for the team).

Jesus invites us in church and ministry leadership to be coxswain in our efforts too. When we exercise humility, be shepherd-like and protective, provide ongoing encouragement, coach attentively, and offer persevering hope to our team…then we are leading as a servant, with our eyes not on ourselves, but toward the goal and always for the sake of the team.

All of this is in keeping with the coxswain-like words of Jesus, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44,45).

That’s the kind of leader I want to be…what about you?


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Steve Macchia

Founder & President

Steve is a graduate of Northwestern College (IA) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.). His prior ministry includes serving on the pastoral staff at Grace Chapel (Lexington, MA) and as president of Vision New England. Since July 1, 2003 Steve has served as founder and president of Leadership Transformations, director of the Pierce Center for Disciple-Building, and adjunct faculty in the Doctor of Ministry department at Gordon-Conwell. He is the author of sixteen books, including The Discerning Life (Zondervan Reflective),  Baker bestseller Becoming a Healthy Church, and Crafting a Rule of Life (IVP). He lives in the Boston area with his wife Ruth and is the proud father of two grown children, Rebekah and Nathan, daughter in-love Ashley, and papa to his beloved granddaughter, Brenna Lynn and twin grandsons, Aiden Joseph and Carson Stephen. “My soul comes alive singing the great hymns of the church and enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. I’m in awe of God for fulfilling the dream for LTI that he birthed in my heart, for the team he has assembled, and the transformational impact experienced in the leaders and teams we serve.

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