What I learnt about leadership on a 111-foot topsail schooner

clarks in mystic seaport

I grew up on sailing ships; every summer I would sail around Vancouver Island (B.C.) and Desolation Sound and at the age of 10 I undertook my first offshore voyage from Victoria, B.C. (Canada) to Brisbane, Australia and back. Later trips included the intercoastal waterways of US and Canada and sailing around Latin America and the Caribbean.

clarks in brisbane
Photo: Onboard the Pacific Swift in Brisbane, Australia.

Here is a summary of what my sailing experience taught me about being a leader:

1) It’s about trust.
There is an excellent video by Simon Sinek where he talks about how leaders eat last. Leadership is about creating a circle of people that trust you to lead them and to “provide” (in the broadest sense of the word) for them. Establishing trust as a leader – whether you are the captain or a member of the crew – is paramount to others contributing their talent, “risky” ideas and energy towards completion of a goal.

2) It’s about vision.
I’m talking about a tangible vision – not “we will to be the most respected company in the ….industry” but rather, “we will sail this 111 foot schooner to Australia and back”. I am a firm believer in establishing project vision at the start; every project (and project collaborator) needs to share a vision in order for people to be able to come together to create something valuable, meaningful and “real”; a project vision also helps people feel the rewards of achieving that vision once the project or journey wraps up.

3) It’s about communication.
Listening, talking, checking-in…leaders invest their time in people. They interact personally with their team and are often not the loudest person in the room because they listen and observe in order to lead more effectively and not fall into the traps of “trade-offs”. Of course they command when necessary (as a captain commands the person at the helm when entering a port or a military leader orchestrates a mission) but their “commands” are in line with the established goals that the project or organization is trying to achieve.

“He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.” Aristotle

4) It’s about forming other leaders.
I have “taken the helm” of a sailboat many times. I don’t remember having to ask for permission. Leadership means forming other leaders and inspiring others to take risks, take action and help to further the shared vision. It’s not about control or power but rather about giving those things to others so that the whole can be larger than the sum of its parts.

“No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.” Peter Drucker

5) It’s about love.
We don’t use the “L” word very much in business but we are social creatures and helping others makes us feel good. When we communicate in person, shake hands or do something for someone else we feel good about it. Scientifically speaking, we are wired to release the “bonding” hormone oxytocin when we are generous towards others. Leadership is about fostering more connections and bonds with people. Sailing means living in very close quarters. Interactions are inevitable. The challenge is business is making transactions more like interactions and fostering dialogue and engagement with people in and outside the organization in order to make people feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. Leadership means making people feel like they are on a voyage of discovery.

Sailing onboard a ship – especially when you are out at sea and two weeks travel from the nearest landfall – teaches you about community, about sharing, and about leadership. It teaches you that people from all walks of life can come together to create something amazing – a society with a shared goal or purpose; a little floating ecosystem; a community of pioneers or explorers.

And you, what do you think leadership means?

EMC

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