Leadership interestingly can also be read ‘Lead-a-ship’; which brings a number of valuable scenarios into play. There are principles we can learn from a sailboat sailing even in calm seas; strategies to deal with the normal practices – direction, progress, and sustaining positive morale, when there is NO wind, and everything seems to be going nowhere for extended periods. But the first thing that boat builders have in mind when they design a yacht (or any boat for that matter) is safety; considering the worst scenarios that the roughest seas have on offer. But even if you are lucky enough to be on the best-designed, safest sailing yacht, the captain is often the difference between disaster and a life-changing story with a good ending.

Let me just quickly let you in on a small secret; I know nothing about sailing, but quite a bit about what makes good leaders effective. And that makes me the perfect person to share this story.

You see, one of my good friends is both an outstanding sailor and a great captain. He invited me to join him and another friend for an overnight sailing trip (my first ever). We are staying on the West Coast of the Western Cape of South Africa… Seas are known for their unpredictability and roughness. The first day between Port Owen And St Helena Bay was enjoyable. He navigated the small 21ft yacht, coaching and involving us in the normal tasks of operations, and we sailed into the safety of the outskirts of the St Helena Bay Harbour. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, had a barbeque, and slept like babies. The next day on our way back, things grew progressively difficult. I realised that compared to the previous day, we were in for a rough ride (pun intended). This is where “Lead-a-ship” skills became evident. Progressively high swells pushed by a strong North Westerly wind were hitting our yacht on the Port side as we pushed North, back towards Port Owen. Our captain remained calm, and focused, delegating tasks he knew we could handle, coaching us on the job, in a way we could understand. I was given the task of keeping the boat on course. He gave me a clear target on land and told me to focus my attention on it and keep the yacht’s nose aimed at it, whilst they managed the sails. Not once did he panic, or stop communicating. I only realised the seriousness of the situation when we were safely in Port Owen Harbour later that afternoon when he spoke to his spouse.

You see good leaders don’t only do the things I shared in this story; they also know when to hide their own fears to give courage and a sense of safety to the people in their care. They know when to share their own vulnerability when their team members need to know they are also human.

Our companies, like sailboats, need to be designed to combat the worst possible storms the industry has to offer. We need to know, that if we sail for long enough we WILL encounter rough waters. Are your leaders equipped to deal with this? The real test of a leader is how they manage themselves during tough times, and use the quiet seas to develop their people. When the time comes, be by their sides to assist. Once the storm has passed, debrief, and prepare for the next.

Thank you, Jano for a practical lesson in good LEAD-a-SHIP.

Stefan Lessing

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