Next Monday, June 2nd, China will officially kickoff the Duanwu holiday with sweet and savory glutinous rice treats—zongzi (粽子)—wrapped in broad, flat leaves, realgar wine (thought to protect against poisons), and incense pouches filled with calamus and wormwood to ward off both insects and evil. But for many around the world, the celebrations really begin with the beat of a drum.

Dragon Boat

The traditional holiday has a second, more recognizable name—Dragon Boat Festival—that comes from one of the day’s most iconic activities – the dragon boat race. The dragon boat is a slim, colorfully painted canoe, each crowned with a dragon-headed prow. 20 rowers seat themselves down the full length of the boat with a drummer at the fore and a steersman in the aft. After all of the boats are in position at the starting line, the horn sounds to mark the beginning of the race and the water erupts with the sound of beating drums.

Teams taking part in international competition—most of which take place in early to mid-June—often begin their training in September. Usually the first 4 months are spent building up muscular strength and endurance with 3-times-weekly, one-and-a-half hour sessions that start with 1,500-meter runs followed by strength exercises. As the weather warms, training moves out onto the water where they practice paddling and stroke technique, which varies at different portions of the race.

The steersman directs the path of the boat from the rear, typically making sweeping adjustments to stay on path and occasionally using a steering technique called “rowing” that allows for close-quarters adjustment but requires a lot more effort.

Perhaps the most critical role in the dragon boat race is that of the drummer. The beat of the drum – slow at first as racers bring the boat up to speed – is the pulse of the team, serving to both echo and drive the pace of paddling. As the boats pick up steam, the drummer calls out encouragement to the team and gives tips to individual rowers. With their back to where the boat is headed, they rely on their teammates to give information about the tempo necessary for the upcoming course. At the peak of the competition, the drummer brings the rhythm of both the racers and the drum to a crescendo. Through this invigoration of the team, listening to their pointers about the boat’s direction, and constantly using the drum to tell the team about the needed pace, the drummer guides them toward their goal, not through strength but through synchronicity.

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In many ways, success in the dragon boat race perfectly mirrors success in business. Competition is fierce and depends on a well-prepared team acting in harmony with back-end support while the team itself depends on the leadership of—in most cases—a very vocal, visible leader.

As in the dragon boat race, proper preparation is critical for success. Each team member has to push themselves hard enough during “practice”—everyday work—to ensure they are at their personal best in terms of competence and comprehension. Each person must be intently focused on their task while at the same time maintaining awareness of colleagues’ work. The longer the team works together, the better their timing and the more exact their execution.

The steersman functions much like back office staff. Their actions are critically important to the team’s overall direction but minute adjustments are costly for them to make.

Great business leaders are like the dragon boat’s drummer. They take their cues from the team. While they always have an idea—a vision—of the path ahead, they focus intently on their team and its dynamics. They listen to the calls of their team members, relying on them to warn of obstacles ahead and of obstructions along the course leading to the ultimate goal. They encourage when necessary and take opportunities to teach individual team members as they arise. They control the pacing of projects and, through it all, help the team maintain its synchronicity.

Many of the prerequisites for success in athletics and sports are also necessary for success in business. The requirements of teamwork, individual discipline, and leadership lend themselves flawlessly to working-world thinking. As dragon boating goes global—this year there are dragon boat races planned on every continent (except Antarctica)—there’s a great opportunity to ponder how the culture of successful enterprise has gone global, as well. Though different teams in different industries in different countries all have their unique cultural flair, the characteristics that determine success or failure are shared around the world. This Dragon Boat Festival, we at CSOFT hope all our friends can have a moment to reflect on your teams and take a bit of inspiration from the dragon boat race.

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