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Taking the Helm: Good sail racing leadership is more about non-racing habits

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

I recently asked my friend Steve, a sail-racing captain, what leadership considerations he makes when he’s out racing. He said leadership for him wasn’t so much about racing specifically, but rather what he does on a regular basis.

He feels that the important thing is to always remember to get the best out of the crew, which kind of goes without saying. In his opinion, since it’s the crew who ultimately wins races, they need to be the leader’s No. 1 focus.  

Steve listed the following as his top considerations for leadership:

  • Appraise the situation.
  • Instill confidence and transparency.
  • Behave with humility.
  • Take responsibility.

Let’s unpack these leadership qualities that Steve focuses on. 

Appraise the situation

Steve believes being able to adopt different leadership styles, depending on the situation, is something that sets the best skippers apart.

“At first, you’ve got this amazing team of people you’ve picked, and we often want things to be a democracy because you want them to give you their knowledge,” he said.

Unfortunately, a democracy doesn’t work in critical conditions or in life-or-death situations.

“If you manage by committee in those situations, you’re endangering people’s lives.” 

There’s only one leader who ultimately calls the shots and when you’re wrong, immediately admit it, change the plan and move forward from there.

Instill confidence and transparency

Adopting a confident front is vital for the skipper of a racing boat, since confidence breeds confidence.

Steve recalled a time when he was the senior member of a two-man team; his partner fed off Steve’s apparent confidence. “It was important that he believed I knew what I was doing,” he said.

“In reality, I may have had doubts and inner turmoil, but I tried not to let it show. On the flip side, it’s a fact that you can’t do everything completely right all the time. And the fact that you’re strong enough to show vulnerability by speaking with teammates about what’s going on in your head gives others a chance to help you, and you to solve the problem. It’s what makes you a strong leader.”

When doubts do show up, sit down with the inner circle to work through any issues and get help seeing different perspectives. This actually develops confidence, since team members understand the captain knows his or her own limits. 

Behave with humility

“A good leader is someone who’s humble and includes everyone in the win. And the best leaders are also those who’re able to show their vulnerability.” This ties back to admitting when we are wrong or feel a lack of confidence. 

Take responsibility

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Some are authoritarian, while others are less controlling, while others are charismatic and charming. Each of these leaders has a different way of getting the most out of their teams. 

But no matter how good a team is, there will always be disagreement. Dealing with such conflict under extreme pressure is part and parcel of skippering a large yacht. Steve described a race he was in during which the boat got damaged in a storm. Half of his crew wanted to continue with the race, while the other half simply wanted to get to the closest dock and fly home. The decision rested with Steve, and he made the call to head to port. He still wanted to carry on, but he knew the best course of action was to get the vessel fixed. 

“It was important I listen to everybody and then make a decision that was best for everyone. The whole decision process was about transparency, being decisive and not wavering once the decision was made.” 

Fortunately, none of these ideas are new or difficult to incorporate. The hard part is to consistently and consciously make these actions habit so they’re automatic. 

At the end of the day, leaders must be conscious of their overall responsibility, since the team isn’t about the leader, but rather about everyone else. The buck stops with the captain. We won’t have perfect team members, but we can have the best team. That develops over time and starts with our leadership.

Capt. Paul Ferdais, skipper of a motor yacht, has a master’s degree in leadership and previously ran a leadership training company for yacht crew. Comments are welcome below.

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  • Taking the Helm: Better leadership relies on forging better habits
  • Taking the Helm: Roman centurions could teach modern leaders a thing or two
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