Smooth Sailing or Time to Batten Down the Hatches?

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” – Publilius Syrus

Every summer, I dedicate some of my vacation time to helping out our local Boy Scout troop with their Summer Camp. While I’ve taught a number of classes over the years, my favorite is always Advanced Sailing. It’s not a merit badge class, and participating in it doesn’t help the scouts advance in rank. However, the troop has a fairly nice sailboat. It’s a 22’ Windstar christened the “Red Rooster” (complete with Jolly Roger), and those who take the class really enjoy it.

Working with these young men is both an honor and a challenge. Learning to sail involves a variety of things. There are the technical aspects of maneuvering a boat, learning to work as a team and cool sailing jargon like “jib sheet” and “coming about.” One of the hardest lessons we tackle, though, involves managing fear.

And it usually happens on day three.

Day one involves rigging the boat and learning the rules of safe boating. I typically maintain control of the rudder so we don’t run into something – like another boat. The scouts take turns manning the jib sheets and trimming the mainsail as I steer and coach them through the various steps required to keep us moving (sailing is only fun if you’re actually moving across the water).

On day two, I turn the rudder over to one of the scouts and assume a position as part of the crew. It’s now their job to decide where we’re going and how we’ll get there. There’s no faster way to learn sailing than by doing it, so I let them make mistakes and figure their way out of it. By the end of the sail, things are starting to click.

By day three the critical learning has taken place. Knowledge of basic sailing mechanics has sunk in and the boys want to see just how fast they can get the boat moving. So the “captain” sets a good course and instructs the crew to trim the sails to maximize the available wind. The sails fill with air, the centerboard starts to hum and … the boat starts to heel.

Heeling occurs when the boat begins to lean over in the water. Unless you’re sailing with it directly behind you, the wind is trying to push you to the side. As you position your sails to maximize the wind’s power in order to move forward, you’re also increasing it’s ability to push you over.

Heeling is an uneasy sensation for new sailors and learning to manage the fear of falling over is part of learning to sail fast. Naturally, some are more comfortable with fear and like to see just how close to the edge they can get. Others would rather float aimlessly and lounge on the deck. If the man on the rudder is one of the latter, he panics and lets go. The boat turns back into the wind, loses all momentum and comes to a stop. Things are stable, but we’re not going anywhere.

Fear is a powerful force. It can cause seemingly smart people to do stupid things. They’ll lie about company results out of fear of looking incompetent. They’ll refuse to add a little more on the expense side of the general ledger for fear that it won’t pay off. They’ll hoard information and hamstring their employees for fear of losing personal value.

Fear is a huge issue for many in leadership positions right now – fear of failure, fear of losing control, fear of looking foolish or out of touch. Real leaders understand that sometimes you have to take a stand – you have to face your fear in order to be successful. Not to overcome it, but to use it to your advantage.

By the end of summer camp, the crew of the Red Rooster has learned how to tie a bowline knot. They’ve learned the difference between “port” and “starboard.” And, judging by the speeds at which our boat is moving forward, they’ve learned how to work with fear rather than run from it. They’ve come to rely on their training and the collective wisdom of the crew to keep them upright and moving in the right direction.

So, question time. How are things on your ship? Are you heeled over a little, but flying towards your destination? Or are you floating listlessly, hoping the tide will gently rock you to the shore?

It’s your call, Captain.

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