Navigating Stormy Waters... and Other Leadership Lessons

Updated: Apr 8

It’s years since I left the Royal Navy.

Since then I’ve mainly been helping other leaders figure out how to lead.

And yet every time I board a ship I have a goosebump moment. As if my body is simultaneously remembering and anticipating the feeling of being at sea. A powerful mix of excitement, apprehension, awe.

Last week we took a ferry from Roscoff to Cork. The sea was rough, with a heavy swell. The ferry was unluxurious, functional. Someone was sick before we left the harbour.

During the overnight passage I found myself reflecting. Not that my life was flashing before me exactly — the ship’s captain was steering a safe course — but (perhaps kindled by nostalgia) my mind was drawn to the stories of my working life and the people behind them.

I thought of Admiral Lord Nelson and the words I remember from a prayer he wrote on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar, October 21st 1805:

‘… may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet.’

Britain won the battle. A much loved and respected seafaring leader lost his life.

I thought of other great leaders I’ve personally worked with. Some who’ve made history, like Admiral Sandy Woodward (task force commander of the Falklands War) and others less prominent who touched the lives of the people around them.

I thought about how they did that. I think it was a mix of important human qualities like courage, compassion, trust, a good sense of humour, and a very clear perspective about what really mattered.

These leaders knew what they stood for and were honest about their shortcomings. They weren’t afraid to be themselves, warts ‘n all. I personally loved them for it and so did many others.

Being at sea with them felt safe. This is why:

They were completely clear on the mission

They understood their objective, and the resources — human and material — that were needed to achieve it.

They enabled each and every member of their team to be properly trained and wholly accountable for their part in the mission. In this way they engendered mutual trust.

They prepared themselves for the voyage by being fully aware of the capabilities of the ship, and the prevailing and forecast sea conditions. In this way they engendered confidence.

They knew how to navigate stormy waters

When the sea state changed they calmly altered course, without losing sight of the destination.

When unexpected hazards occured, they guided the ship around them.

Listening to all input, they selected the optimum route to make best progress at all times.

They had broad horizons

They reached far.

They remained grounded.

They inspired everyone around them to be their best.

Leadership lessons for life?

Sure they are. And they can be developed.

They lie at the heart of my development programme for leaders who want to become the best version of themselves.


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