The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

It was supposed to be an easy cruise. That’s what they told me.  The  47’ Morris sailboat, sailed the Newport to Bermuda race and finished second in her class. We were part of the crew sailing her back to Newport.  And, it was my first sailing trip. To say that the trip didn’t go as planned is an understatement if there ever was one. We made it back safe and sound because of the quality of the boat and the experience of the crew – except for me. When we left I still didn’t know a jib from a halyard or port from starboard.

The trip, expected to be a little more than three days, took five due to adverse weather. The only thing calm was the crew. The seas were rough almost from the start and became even rougher when we crossed the Gulf Stream. The evening we hit the Gulf Stream, we encountered three 50-knot squalls in quick succession with 10’ to 12’ seas. Due to the rough weather, the boat had a series of issues. The auto pilot stopped working on day one, the engine stopped on day two, during the storm the reef line on the mainsail broke, the halyard on the jib broke, the furler jammed, the tack of the spinnaker let go and, later, the spinnaker artfully wrapped itself around the forestay. During the worst of the storm, lines fell into the water and promptly wound themselves around the propeller shaft. I’m told that none of this is unusual but to have them all happen on one voyage was remarkable. By the time we arrived in Newport, everything I brought to wear was wet. The quick-dry fabric never dried.  Collectively, we smelled like a 50’ wet tennis shoe. Are we having fun yet?

As I lay in the narrow bunk, heeled 30 degrees, I listening to the storm tear at the boat and sails. And, I listened to the crew tackle each adversity calmly, collaboratively, decisively and transparently. Do you do the same when adversity hits your organization?

Calm. It was one problem after another in quick succession in rough weather. It would have been unnerving except for the calm of the captain. With each calamity, he talked to the crew – no raised voice, panic, of exasperation. The intensity of the situation stood in clear contrast to his calm demeanor.  As an insightful leader, how do you manage stress and outwardly demonstrate calm?

Collaborate. When a problem was solved, something else broke. Each time, the captain collaborated with the crew. What happened? What are the pros/cons of each option? This was no dictatorship. Neither was it a democracy. It was informed leadership. How do you collaborate under stress to capture and objectively weigh all options? Our captain based his decisions on crew input. Do you truly listen to others?

Decisive. The conversations between the captain and crew were quick, succinct and decisive. The captain listened, made a decision, and that was that. Other ideas were dropped, and action was taken. Are your decisions crisp, clear and strong? Once you decide, don’t waiver. There’s time later to evaluate and adjust. For now, give staff clear directions to follow.

Transparent. We were in a tough spot. Some of us were not experienced sailors and the situation was a wee bit unnerving (to say the least). It would have been easy for the captain to sugar-coat our predicament under the pretense of not alarming us.  Instead, he was honest and transparent. In a matter-of-fact manner, he shared the realities of each situation and decision. The transparency was reassuring and created trust. Are you being transparent with your staff about difficult situations? Yes, some topics can’t be discussed openly, and it is not constructive to publicly debate every option.  However, once a decision is made, it is helpful to share the decision, the rationale behind the decision and the implications. People understand that not everything goes as expected, but people don’t like to be in the dark. That creates suspicion and erodes trust. Transparency does the opposite.

I confess that I’m not ready for another cruise like this one, but I’m grateful for the crew and for the lessons: be calm, collaborate, be decisive and transparent.

Share an experience that you’ve had that taught you a lesson.

  1. Never have been able to take rough seas without being seasick and the rough seas you experienced made me very uncomfortable, to say the least. Must have been an exciting venture and I know you enjoyed the opportunity and skills of the crew. Cruise up the Colorado River and come visit sometime.

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