Unexpected challenges are the greatest test of leadership. It’s comparatively easy to lead when everything is going well, but faced with a serious difficulty, that’s when true clarity of purpose shows itself. I came a little too close to a reminder of this recently.
On a recent trip to Mount Desert Island in Maine, my family and I chartered a boat – the Alice E. – out of Southwest Harbor. Although by no means serious sailors, we’ve chartered Sail Acadia
’s 1899 Friendship Sloop before and were looking forward to a great day on the sea with owner and captain, Karl, at the helm.
It all started out well and the weather report was perfect. Clear blue skies, enough wind to keep the sails full, and a basket of fruit and cheese for snacks (thanks, Karl!). Our boat was briefly surrounded by porpoises, including two juveniles who arched side by side through the water. We sailed out, past the Cranberry Islands to a ledge where we could see seals bobbing in the ocean swells.
Behind us, though, dark skies came up quickly. We turned for port, a little earlier than planned, thinking we were in for some unexpected rain, when we were hit by a squall. Strong, gusty winds pushed us faster and the boat heeled hard to starboard, with water over the gunwales. It was exhilarating and not too
scary until a large gust of wind pushed us even farther down, water on the deck, sails just above the water, coming too close to a 90 degree angle for comfort. For Karl, it may have been just another day at the (open air) office, but we were very nearly knocked down, in what we later learned was 53 degree water.
Karl sprang into action. He brought down the main sail in the high wind, tying off lines that were flying across the boat. Moving smoothly along the deck at a steep angle, he quickly regained control and brought us in with the motor. He even found a moment to go below to grab a blanket for cover, as the rain was pouring down on everyone aboard. We made it to Southwest Harbor, wet but safe, after a storm that took the lives of two kayakers just a couple of miles away.
In the moment, we really weren’t especially afraid, except for the moment of the near-knockdown. What struck me later was Karl’s calm and how that influenced the experience. As he saw our anxiety build and grappled with the whipping sails, he kept up a steady, easy flow of conversation about what he was doing and why. He let us know what to expect, reassured us that the boat was built for much worse weather than this, and clearly demonstrated the technical skill and knowledge needed to get us all home. He never appeared ruffled or stressed, just busy and focused.
Having been through my share of recessions, travel program emergencies, and other workplace challenges, I've been thinking about Karl’s reactions that day. They stand out to me as those of an exemplary leader. When things get scary, leaders have to stay reassuring, focused, efficient, and keep the stress and comfort of the team in mind. Leadership is in part born of experience and knowing what to do when, but it also takes determination and resilience to steady the emotional response of those around you. In a crisis, a leader inspires confidence by staying calm, communicating, and acting decisively. And sometimes he or she thinks to hand you a blanket when you’re cold and wet.