This blog is longer than usual because it is the first chapter of a book I have worked on called Leadership Lessons of a Novice Sailor. One of the most enjoyable gifts I have been given was a sailboat. It has taught me as much about leading as it has about sailing.
It was the last day of a seven night cruise with my wife, her sister and her husband. By this final day of the cruise, I had talked about everything one can talk to his brother-in-law about. Searching for additional topics to discuss, and to keep the conversation going, I remembered he had at one time owned a sailboat. So I asked him, “Didn’t you have a sailboat at one time?”
He responded, “Yea, do you want that thing?”
Well, I had never sailed a boat and really did not know anything about sailboats. But someone was offering to give me a sailboat, so I said, “Yes!”
A few weeks after our vacation, I went to get my new sailboat. When I arrived at his property, he took me to see my much anticipated new toy. He explained it had been parked in his barn for ten years. Frankly, the 1989 sixteen foot Hobie catamaran was not much to look at. The boat consisted of two small hulls that looked like a pair of dirty, peeled bananas with a trampoline between them, and no motor. It was sitting on a trailer with flat tires, but he had bags of sails, boxes of parts, and a manual. There were rudders, a tiller, shrouds, and a mast (that is the only thing I really recognized). I loaded everything he gave me into my pickup truck, aired up the trailer tires, hooked the trailer up, and headed home.
When I am in a new situation, such as being the owner of a sailboat I know nothing about, I usually make a trip to the bookstore and buy a book. So I bought a book on sailing catamarans to learn to be a sailor. Over the next several weeks I cleaned the boat, learned what the parts of the boat were and how they went together so I could rig the boat, and read about sailing. The cleaning, rigging, and reading culminated in our maiden voyage.
I enlisted my son-in-law, Steve, to participate in my first attempt to sail a boat on a Friday afternoon. We arrived at the boat ramp on a local lake and began to rig the boat (something a friend would later describe as recreational calculus). This involved stepping the mast, locking the rudders in place, connecting the tiller, and loading the sails. As the next step in the process we launched the boat into the water—it floated! We boarded the boat and began to raise the main sails while inadvertently drifting away from shore with no motor. We provided plenty of entertainment for two inebriated fishermen on the shore who watched our failed attempt to raise the main sail, which became our primary accomplishment that afternoon. Fortunately, I had attached a paddle to one of the crossbeams, so we paddled the sailboat back to shore.
Obviously I had not read the book well enough, so I spent that evening reviewing the basics of catamaran sailing in order to make our second sailing attempt Saturday morning. On this second trip we went to the other side of the lake, where the wind would blow us toward shore in the event we failed once again to get the sail up. The boat ramps at this particular lake are designed to launch four boats at a time, and it was a very busy morning. A constant stream of fishing boats, ski boats, and jet skis launched in the hour we spent rigging the sailboat. With the mast standing, rudders locked in place, and sails lying on the trampoline waiting to be raised, we finally backed the trailer into the lake and launched the Hobie for our maiden voyage. Steve and I appreciated the assistance of the wind in keeping the boat close to shore in case we failed to raise the sail again, but just to be doubly safe he stood in the lake and held the boat while I raised the sails.
That Saturday morning I took one step closer to becoming a sailor. I raised the sails on a sailboat. After a brief celebration we determined to set sail. As a reminder, my knowledge of sailing consisted of what I had read in the catamaran sailing book, and Steve has still not read it. As captain, I instructed Steve to take the pole (I did not remember its proper name, the tiller) and I grabbed the ropes as we pushed the boat out, climbed on board and waited for the wind to move us. The boat floated out about fifty feet as we anticipated its interaction with the wind.
When the wind captured the boat it took a hard, ninety degree right turn (starboard tack in sailor talk) and began to pass in front of the boat ramp, picking up speed. About the time we moved beyond the power boats on the ramp, something changed. I am not sure what happened next, but I am fairly certain it involved operator error. We took another hard, ninety degree right turn and headed directly back to shore. As a result of the unintended, unanticipated turns Steve and I were tossed on our backs with our legs in the air while the sailboat raced back to shore. Under the amazed stares of everyone anywhere near that part of the lake the boat came to a stop, landing on some large rocks on the opposite side of the boat ramp from where we started. We laid there confused, dazed, and embarrassed with the boat lunging forward because of the wind that continued to fill its sails. I wondered if I would ever become a sailor.
Most people become leaders much like I became a sailor. I was given a boat. You were given a position. That position might carry various titles such as manager, supervisor, team lead, director, vice president, president and the list can go on, but at some level each title represents the responsibility to bring people together to achieve a desired result. The path to success in these roles is leadership. When you are offered such a position you are in effect being asked, “Do you want to lead?” You may have never thought much about becoming a leader, nor considered your potential in such a role. Or on the contrary, you may have pursued the opportunity, but either way someone offered you the position. What did you say? “Yes?”
When you become a leader you bring with you some ideas about leadership. In preparation, perhaps you engage in some learning process such as reading, professional development, or academic pursuits. This is not a static process. The wisdom of learning about leadership is validated in the many dynamic challenges becoming a leader presents to a person. There are many leadership skills that can be learned and improved through training. But you cannot learn to lead by reading or training. I would have never become a sailor by reading books or even taking sailing classes.
The first leadership lesson I learned as a novice sailor: you learn to lead by leading. Knowing and applying the leadership capacities to people over time makes leaders. I learned to sail by sailing and my first attempt was very disappointing. Leadership bestows a science to learn, and an art to perfect, because every person, group, or organization you lead is unique. You will become a leader by leading people. When you say yes to the position, you say yes to becoming a leader. Although it is less tangible than a sailboat, you are taking possession of something new. Every time you say yes to a position involving bringing people together for a common cause, a new opportunity to lead presents itself.
With all of the opportunity that exists in a leadership role, the mistakes you will make represent, perhaps, the most painful reality of learning: to lead by practicing on people. Every leader I am aware of has ended up on the rocks a few times. You will make decisions that affect those you lead negatively as you learn to make judgments as a leader. You will take actions toward others that you will regret as you learn to lead them. You will have negative effects at times as a leader, even when you have the best of intentions. And you will make these mistakes with everyone watching. When you end up on your back, on the rocks, embarrassed, wondering how you got there, remember, you will learn from the experience. There will be days you ask, “Will I ever become a leader?”