summit 2022 robyn benincasa

Firefighter and adventure athlete Robyn Benincasa spoke at the Summit about building world-class teams.

Success Means the Whole Team Gets Over the Finish Line

By Mark Wolf | Aug. 9, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Robyn Benincasa had operated on a fear of failure her entire life.

That changed, she told the opening session of NCSL’s Legislative Summit, during an adventure race in Ecuador, as she was paddling a canoe with one of her teammates. The top-rated team was close behind.

“We were paddling, paddling, paddling, and I kept looking back to see if they were gaining on us,” she said. “My buddy Ian was behind me steering. He was so annoyed that my focus was on not losing that the next time I turned around, he took his paddle, threw it down in the boat and grabbed the top of my head and physically spun me back around to face forward downriver.

“He leaned over and, in my ear, said, ‘Winning is that way!’”

Benincasa is a career firefighter in San Diego, a world champion adventure racer and a world record endurance kayaker.

She described adventure racing as a “super silly unicorn sport” in which four- or five-member mixed-gender teams compete over an unmarked course of 600 to 1,000 miles requiring, among other things, paddling (kayaks or canoes), distance runs, mountain biking, horseback riding and mountaineering.

“And the clock never stops,” she said, noting that competitors can get as little as 90 minutes of sleep every 24 hours. “Everyone on the team has to stay within 50 yards of each other from start to finish. If one person quits, your entire team is disqualified.”

Think ‘We,’ Not ‘Me’

That unforgiving teamwork, she said, equates to many facets of life, including legislatures.

“We can’t say we’re a success unless all of our teammates, in your case, all of your constituents and communities, also crossed the finish line,” she said. The secret to success in her sport—and in the legislature—depends less on any one individual and more on the team as a whole.

“If you’re a coach, you don’t want your five ‘best players,’ you want your ‘best five.’”

World-class teams, she said, focus on the comeback, not the setbacks.

Benincasa learned she suffered from stage four osteoarthritis and has undergone six hip surgeries. After recovering, she tried being a solo ultra-endurance kayaker and wound up setting a still-standing world record for the longest distance covered in 24 hours.

And, she said, be prepared for occasional failure: “No matter how hard we try and how well we plan, sometimes a journey of 1,000 miles ends very, very badly.”

Effective leaders, she said:

  • Become “we” thinkers, not “me” thinkers.
  • Get every team member to commit to getting each other across the finish line.
  • Take ownership of the project and get 100% buy-in from your team. Find out the “why” for every team member. Let people lead with their strength.
  • Relinquish your ego at the starting line.

Learn more about Robyn Benincasa here, and learn more about adventure racing here.

Mark Wolf is a senior editor at NCSL.

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