Leadership lessons from a boat ramp

The late great Nelson Mandela said “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”.

Nelson Mandela’s acts of courage were on a vast scale, but lessons in courage can be sourced in our small every day acts.  I recently joined the hordes of thousands of Kiwis and bought a motor boat. I’ve never had one before. I’ve watched people launch them from boat ramps – with various success. Some gliding their trailers effortlessly into the water and launching the boat in one beautifully orchestrated move. Others back their trailers like a drunken snake and the launch is a stressful opera of ropes and yelling.

Leaders are always being watched.  Same with launching a boat – from casual passers by to seasoned boaties awaiting their turn on the ramp.  So I was fearful about my first launch but knew I needed to conquer it. I wanted to pass with distinction. And it wasn’t just about looking good on the ramp – there is also the issue of human safety and smashed fiberglass. To have the courage I created a plan.

First, I did a capability assessment. Strengths: I can back a trailer; I have two enthusiastic team members capable of helping and providing feedback on progress; I have access to those with experience in boat launching.  Weaknesses: I don’t know much about motor boats; I know nothing about how to get a boat off and on a trailer; I know nothing about boat ramp protocol.

Second, I consciously adopted a way of being that I thought would be helpful – being open, curious and calm.

Next, I got the person I bought the boat from to demonstrate a launch and retrieval.  I asked him to slow it all down and felt free to ask the dumb questions.  I watched You Tube videos about how to launch a boat and on boat ramp protocol.

Before our first launch, the team (me and my two sons), agreed what we were going to do, who was going to do what, and in what order – role clarification and setting clear expectations.

Importantly, we had a discussion of what could go wrong and what we would do if they did.  I think this is important for developing courage – being prepared for how to handle things if they go wrong rather than assuming the vision will unfurl without a hitch.  When things don’t go as planned we can panic or retreat and too quickly declare failure. Those who have done Catapult leadership programmes will know that breakdowns are normal when doing something new.

I kept my focus till the end and did not declare victory too soon. Heading home after our first trip one of my sons said “we did it – awesome!” I replied that I would celebrate once home.  Declaring victory too soon could mean forgetting to secure the boat and it sliding off the trailer on the way up the hill!

I’ve launched and retrieved the boat quite a few times now and without disgrace.  I will persevere with my checklist as life experience has told me that early assumption of mastery can be fatal.  The black belt that comes from habitual competence is a long way off. In the meantime I’m enjoying the triumph that comes with every successful launch and retrieval.

Lessons Learned for Developing Courage

  1. Do a capability assessment. What are your strengths and weaknesses in relation to the task?
  2. Create a way of being that will help
  3. Learn from others – how do they do it?
  4. Agree on the plan, have clear roles and responsibilities
  5. Explore what you will do if and when things go wrong
  6. Review and refine. Learn from mistakes. Celebrate successes.