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Captain’s Focus: Building Leadership Skills

Mastery at the helm is more than good steering technique

When experienced captains choose to turn to port or starboard, they don’t look at the wheel. Instead, they move it in practiced increments while watching how the boat turns onto its new course. At the same time, they are often giving instructions to crewmembers and watching for traffic.

Developing your skills as a leader gives you the same capability to execute a task well while keeping an eye on other aspects of your business at the same time. Good leaders keep building their skill sets because they never know which skill is going to give them an edge tomorrow, next week or next month. They also know that having several skills to draw upon gives them more ways to solve problems quickly. You’ll have your own list, but in my coaching practice and when racing sailboats, the following skills always come up.


I put this skill first because so many of us are challenged by it. Many people become leaders because they are quick studies or worked hard and became skilled at one or two tasks. But building an effective team requires passing along clearly described responsibilities to others, mentoring and coaching them, and standing clear and providing them space to fail, to succeed and to learn. If there’s more than one person working at your company, practicing this skill is essential. Even if you’re working solo, you will have a network of partners.

The bottom line? You are never alone, and delegation starts with asking yourself who can help you accomplish the next task.


This goes with delegation because you can’t delegate without communicating. Yet the art of good communication goes deeper than setting clear expectations so that others can execute instructions. Good communication begins with listening because communication goes two ways. While a good leader will know a lot and have a lot to teach, a great leader realizes that the rest of his staff has far more collective knowledge of the business than the leader.

Develop the habit of asking open-ended questions, and your communications can quickly shift from being a persistent problem to having a practiced solution.


There are more sources of information available than ever, a reality that creates an opportunity and a hurdle. No matter what your role is in a company, it’s critical to have business intelligence: studying external and internal data, gathering reports from those in the field, building your network and reviewing trends in related markets. But how much can you absorb in a month’s time? And what will you focus your team on in the short term? Too much data can get in the way, and good preparation requires zeroing in on what will make a difference.

Practice writing shorter reports and leaner agendas, and you’ll leave room for more action.


You’ve built your team, communications are good all around, and your data says you have an opening in the market. Is it time to take a risk with a new product or strategy? If you hesitate because conditions aren’t perfect, consider beefing up your skills as an innovator. Make some small bets on process or pricing or whatever fits in your area. Fail or succeed quickly; learn, improve and develop an appetite for trying new things. Few businesses operate today as they did 10 years ago, and none is likely to look the same in another 10 years.

Innovation isn’t an option. It’s necessary for survival.


Though some people consider them opposites, consistency and innovation can work well together. Consistency provides balanced leadership and sets a standard and a tone for company culture. That culture enables a team to be more efficient. Innovation often comes through a consistent stream of small changes that together build a learning capability within a team, which begins to expect regular shifts in the status quo.

Consistency also means telling the truth. Being circumspect with the information you hold is part of any job, but being honest with people builds trust in the world of business, as well as in other aspects of life.

Be a business leader who becomes known for integrity, and you’ll find more staff members and external partners lining up to support you when the going gets tough.

On a sailboat, capable skippers have the skill to trim sails without looking at the line or the cleat; they watch the sail to see the effect of the adjustment, refining their movements based on what they see. With time and practice, they can see and do more, prioritizing what they observe from moment to moment. Practicing and refining your skills makes this equally possible at the helm of your business.

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.



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