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Lessons From the Boat: Part VII

From boat to business, how do you lead?

Fish, sail, cruise, wake surf. No matter the pursuit, does your boat, equipment, skill or strategy make the most difference? It depends on the day would be one answer. But another is that all experts are not equally good at all aspects of their craft, and each relies on different strengths to succeed. More simply, there are many ways to catch a fish.

Some fishing masters lean on the fact that they have selected the best boat and equipment for their style of angling. Others have a knack for showing up at the right spot at the right time regardless of the boat. Still others rely on having exactly the right tackle and technique when they need it. What they all have in common is that they usually catch more fish than all those around them.

Now consider your strengths when you’re on a boat — or in any other area in which you have a mastery. Do you agree with this statement? What we focus on most afloat carries over to the way we take the lead and get results at work. If that’s so, consider that lessons we learn about leadership in one arena can serve us well in another.

Play to Your Strengths

On my sailing teams, our strengths as a racing crew lie in our consistency, because we maintain good speed and execute maneuvers well. We avoid tangling with nearby boats and try to put distance on all trailing boats, even if we don’t pass a nearby competitor that’s also in the lead group.

In my work, my approach is similar. I rely on good organization and preparation, and I key in on relationship-building within working teams and executing well in the time allowed for any job. It’s not flashy, and it can be time-consuming, but the results are consistent.

When you’re on the boat, do you make decisions quickly or deliberately? Do you plan for contingencies or shove off and learn from experience? How do those answers compare to your responses in this quick quiz?

• When you open your email in the morning, do you review it all and delegate everything you can to your team, or spy the hot topic and dive right in to help put out the fire?

• When a piece of equipment begins to fail, do you authorize an expedient fix or request a report that shows the cost-benefit of replacement options?

• When you have a new product, do you study the market data, fine-tune development and plan a big roll-out, or go to market quickly to test the waters and refine as you learn?

Your answers likely depend on your market sector and daily calculations of urgency. But they reflect your leadership style and your go-to strengths, as well. For example, does the team always come first, or will you lead by example as problem-solver-in-chief? Will you meet your sales and production numbers for this quarter come hell or high water, or will your long-term cost-management be exemplary? Will your company gain a reputation for having the most innovative products, or the most reliable?

Do Strengths Point to Weaknesses?

Where I am weaker as a racing sailor is in being aggressive boat-against-boat. I will never forget the final minutes before the last race of one championship: All we had to do was make a move to start ahead of one other boat, and we’d likely win the title. Instead, we spent those precious minutes on a rigging change that, at best, would deliver a tiny speed improvement. Our competitor jumped us with an aggressive move on the starting line, and we never caught up.

In my work, I like to play percentages — the equivalent of improving one’s boat speed a 10th of a knot at a time. Yet I know I must look for those moments when a decisive act could be an instant game-changer. I’ve learned the most and gained the most in the past when I stepped out of my comfort zone, took a risk and moved more aggressively.This can work both ways. I’ve worked in more than one organization run by a leader who was an aggressive boat racer. He had great instincts and people skills, and the pace was fast and exciting. But sometimes he moved too aggressively and we paid a price for it. Which is better depends on the day.

If you were to rate yourself in your leadership aboard the boat and at work, how would they match up? In the table here, circle one to five stars in each area, and send me a snapshot at the email address, along with your reflections on why they match up or don’t.


In subsequent columns, we’ll look at each of these focus areas and explore ways that skippers and business leaders can leverage their strengths and shore up their weaknesses.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.


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