Sailing and Leadership Lessons: Part 1 - Novacrea Research
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Sailing and Leadership Lessons: Part 1

Sailing in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Galileo55 on Flickr Creative Common

This is the first part of a two-part series on leadership lessons I observed while sailing with my friends this past weekend. Part 2 will be revealed next week! Here’s Part 1:

Our friend Rob invited us to go for a sunset sail with him this past weekend. It was a gorgeous day for sailing: crisp blue sky, high tide, windy but not too gusty. Rob has been sailing for more than 30 years and he’s been in many races. But we are complete novices.

Rob turned on the motor and guided the boat out of its dock. Once on the open water, he asked me to take the helm and showed me how to make micro adjustments so that we’d stay on course while he and Marcus put up the main sail.

The first time I had a deep experiential appreciation for the phrase “taking the helm” was on my friend Melvin’s boat. On that trip, Melvin was the skipper. When he needed to do something else, he asked his wife to take over the helm. She did a fine job taking the helm and guided us to where we wanted to go.

It dawned on me that there are many parallels between sailing and leading. The metaphors in leadership came alive for me on this particular sailing trip.

Here are lessons I learned from Rob, who’s a wonderful and patient instructor, and my observations on how these lessons can be applied to leading people and organizations.

Take the helm, make micro adjustments but never lose sight of your target and where you are going.

At one point when I was at the helm, Rob was standing in my line of sight and I could not see my target on the horizon. I had to ask Rob to step aside so that I could steer the wheel and get us closer to our destination.

Similarly, as a leader, you constantly need to make micro adjustments to meet the changing market conditions and keep your organization competitive and sustainable. At the same time, you shall never lose sight of your goals so that you can lead your people to achieve what you set out to accomplish.

Sometimes your line of sight may be blocked. This is when having a vision and business strategy is critical. A clear vision will help you see the overall picture and avoid distractions along the way. When the vision is clearly articulated, employees will have a better understanding of where the company is headed and how they can help to get the team there.

Check the wind index and make sure you are sailing in the wind, especially when you need to put up your sails.

Experienced sailors know that the most dangerous time on board is when you put up and take down the sails. To make this task safer, it’s best to position the ship in the direction of the wind so that when you put up your sail you’ll minimize the risk of being hit by the sail from counter wind and potentially falling into the water.

Likewise, as a leader you need to assess your risks and position your team or organization in the wind to grow your business while minimizing potential danger. You need to check your “wind index”: your dashboard of indicators, to monitor progress, identify potential risks, and take preventive measures before it’s too late. Having business analytics will help. You can use the insights from business analytics to identify new business opportunities, change your products or services, and improve internal processes.

If you are sailing in the wind, you have to follow the wind’s direction. Your target will shift, and that’s okay.

When I first took the helm, Rob asked me to sail in the wind and aim for Angel Island. I kept my eye on Angel Island, constantly making micro adjustments on the helm to make sure that our ship was headed in the right direction.

But the wind changed direction. I was still aiming for Angel Island but was having difficulty keeping the ship sailing in the wind. Finally Rob said, “now that the wind has changed direction, you’ll need to change your target, too!”

Right, just when I thought I’ve got it, the wind changed direction. I’d need to change my target in order to continue sailing in the wind and take a detour to get to my destination.

How often have you experienced similar situations as a leader? Just when you thought you’ve identified your target market and got your process down, the market conditions changed. It may be due to a natural disaster that means you don’t have enough supplies of raw materials. Or, there’s a rapid adoption of a new technology and your existing system cannot keep up. Perhaps your customers’ needs have changed. Now what do you do?

If you want to sail in the wind and achieve your ultimate goals, you’ll need to constantly listen to the market, shift your target, and take a detour. You may need to identify other sources for raw materials or hire contract workers to build a system that’s compatible with the new technology, quickly. In some cases, you may have to let go of some non-profitable product lines or services and carve a niche for your business. You’ll refocus, serve your niche exceptionally well, and be successful.

We will stop here for now. Next week, I’ll share additional observations about sailing and leadership. Stay tuned!

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