Lessons in leadership from the sea

The author as President of the HBA addressing
an audience of more than 2000 healthcare executives.

Being in charge of your universe

by Daria Blackwell

Many people in leadership positions, myself included, assumed their roles by chance. Not thinking of themselves as leaders, they got things done that needed doing. Someone had to step up to keep the ship from foundering. They may not have had all the skills they needed to fulfill their roles effectively at the time, but they had the right attitude. They knew it could be done.

Leadership is not about telling people what to do. Leadership is about embracing a vision: knowing where you need to go and why, identifying the best routes and securing the resources needed. The
most effective leaders don’t simply have a vision; they have integrity and a way of communicating the vision that fosters belief and trust. Perhaps this is why so many leaders consider themselves introverts. Introverts tend to think deeply about things before acting on them. Perhaps that makes them able to communicate a thoroughly well thought out strategy. 

There is an energy associated with leadership; an effective energy that gets people moving in unison. When people understand where, why and how, they adopt the vision as their own and navigate a straighter course to success. It becomes self-sustaining because everyone wants to be part of a winning team. Effective leadership takes a lifetime of refining. Some of the best leaders seek diverse experiences so they can apply what they’ve learned in new ways to emerging situations. Accepting unusual opportunities is a great way to expand your leadership expertise.

I learned more from leadership roles in the non-profit sector than in any for-profit position. In an all-volunteer organization, no one has to do anything and everyone is there for personal reasons. Understanding motivations allows creation of tailored rewards that satisfy personal needs. In volunteerism, the motivation is not monetary. I heard about intangibles like personal fulfillment, recognition, being heard, giving back, gaining experience and making connections. Granted, those can lead to greater business success, but there’s much more to it. Understanding such factors in any setting can help build organizational momentum, particularly when it comes to women and young employees. It helps to identify the rewards and destinations that are priorities for each individual. Learning to value other people’s needs as distinct from your own allows your leadership integrity to shine through.
Cover photo years later for an industry magazine

A few examples of lessons I learned -- for inspiration

In another life I was a leader of people in pretty big companies. It had taken a lifetime to learn the difference between management and leadership. I was one of the lucky ones. I believe I had leadership in me the whole time; it had just been beaten into submission for a long time.  I was mislead into believing that a leader has to have all the answers and has to tell people what to do or else they'll never do much of anything. I was led to believe that you don't have to be liked to be a good leader only respected.

When I finally realized that everyone else was struggling with all the same issues I was, it became okay to let go. And when I let go, I reached my goal. And when I reached my goal, it wasn't nearly as good as I expected it to be. BUT, I had gotten to where I had wanted to be which meant two things: 1) I had nothing left to prove to anyone else but myself and 2) I could find another goal. But that's kind of how I am.

And that's when it became okay to sail off in search of adventure. Everyone thought I was crazy. I'd made it to the top. This was where I could reap rewards, lots of them. Except that money never meant that much to me. I have this altruism gene; I need more than money to rev me up. Sure it's nice, and it's useful for buying the boat to sail off on, but it's not the end all and be all. I consider myself lucky.

What I was unprepared for was that I would learn more about leadership in one ocean crossing than I had in my entire career.  Maybe it's because our first ocean crossing also happened to be the most challenging. We sailed through six gales and sailed back in our track for 24 hours to avoid a strong 'survival conditions' storm. But hey, we made it through and crossed twice more in rapid succession. So here are a few of the things I learned.
Receiving an award for organizational leadership

First you have you to row a little boat

To get to the big boat, you need to master the little boat that will get you out there to the big one. Start by rowing and see how it behaves. Add a sail and get it to go faster.  Put on the engine so you can go any time.  You always keep the oars with you in case the wind dies and the engine doesn't start.  What the process does is it teaches you about all the options so you can choose among them more effectively. And you learn that options will keep you from drifting out to sea without a paddle when the tide goes out.
The little boat. A Hobie 18 on a freshwater lake.

You are master of the universe

You are each responsible for your entire universe. Make it the most purposeful universe it can be.
My husband and I have sailed across the Atlantic aboard our 57-foot sailboat three times now. To say it was an amazing experience each time is an understatement. With just the two of us alternating watches, only one was on active duty at any time. We were each responsible for everything that happened in our universe.

There was no one to give orders. Any rules were made for good reason. Each decision had the potential for immediate consequences. Under such circumstances, we came to understand the true nature of accountability in leadership. Each action had to have relevance and purpose.
Ready to move up to a Sabre 36 on Chesapeake Bay.

If something breaks, you can fix it, replace it or do without it

If we didn’t have a spare part for something that broke, we had to fix it or do without. Often, there were no standard answers. We had to be creative. We had to persevere. There was no wasted effort. When things didn’t run smoothly we paid in immediate discomfort or danger. Not taking action could have been fatal. A sense of purpose makes every decision a much clearer choice and cements your leadership capability under pressure.
Taking the next step on a Frers 41 in Long Island Sound. 

Above all, don't panic

Fortunately we learned a great deal about ourselves, especially that we do not panic or buckle under pressure. That's a really good thing to learn on a very big, powerful and angry ocean. We lost steering on one crossing -- twice for two different reasons. We worked together to come up with a plan. Both times, mid-ocean, there was no one to call for assistance. One stayed on deck and sailed the boat by adjusting the sails -- she basically sailed herself very nicely; the other worked down below trying to fix whatever was wrong. We consulted with each other as necessary and worked through the problems methodically.

Fortunately, we were able to solve the problem.  But sometimes, you have no choice when things go wrong; you have to abandon a ship that is sinking quickly. Too many people abandon ship out there when there's really no need to. Very often the boats sail themselves to the destination on their own. If you are fortunate, you develop seamanship, akin to leadership at sea. If you don't, then you have a rather accurate measure of your personal qualities. You learn most about yourself when faced with adversity.
Crossing oceans on a Bowman 57 to Ireland.

You cannot lead someone where they don't want to go

People won’t follow where they don’t want to go. Help people embrace the vision to build your credibility. In the for-profit world, questioning a leader’s decision can be damaging, yet people won’t follow unquestionably.  They may “do as they are told,” but only for so long. Helping them understand the vision can help, but if they don’t believe in the vision, they will not support it. You may affect whether they want to follow by increasing the reward, decreasing the risk, or changing the destination. I learned during a merger that it wasn’t always that easy.

People don’t like change. When presented with a new goal, their reaction is often to label it impossible. Try turning it around by asking: “What would it take to change the impossible into the probable?” By recognizing team members as experts, you make them part of the process. Enabling people to be part of a solution they can embrace, then getting them what they need to fulfill that mission, builds your leadership credibility.

Heading off to the Caribbean and Atlantic Islands.

After thought

Much like sailing, leadership is a lifelong learning experience. It begins with a positive attitude and continues from there. Many effective leaders have diverse backgrounds, testing new visions against new challenges all the time. You learn something from each adventure. Moreover, you learn something more about yourself with each experience.

For me, sailing is the ultimate leadership experience. You will never know it all. Things are different every time you go out. It may sound counter intuitive but you learn teamwork and self-reliance at the same time, and you know when to turn to each. Adaptability becomes the key to survival and successful arrival at a given destination. Sometimes you even learn that the destination has to change en route to be viable. That's why sail training is such a popular choice for your people's development.

It takes experience to refine leadership skills and style. Where are you going to look for it next?


Popular posts from this blog

Top 30+ Sailing Movies

Top Ten Books about Sailing (non-fiction)

Top Ten+ Novels Based on Sailing (fiction)