Life lessons from boat racing – leaders lead

When we first starting racing many years ago, I was trying to do everything. I drove the boat, called tactics, called sail trim and generally annoyed the hell out of my crew as they sat around waiting for the next order.

Well our results showed that. We improved gradually, but then hit a wall and couldn’t get any better than middle of the pack. Not only that, but I was not enjoying racing and would come off the lake with my head ready to explode.

So we tried an experiment. I gave up the helm. The reasoning behind this was that in most circumstances, driving the boat was fairly mechanical but required absolute concentration, and it alone was a full time job, especially on a short course. If you let your concentration waver by calling tactics or calling sail trim, you simply weren’t driving as well as you could. Not only that, I was also missing a fair bit on the tactics and sail trim side as I simply couldn’t do those and helm at the same time.

It worked well, and to this day I rarely drive the boat in a race. Instead I concentrate on tactics, and now rely on others looking after the mechanics of getting the boat going well. Is it working perfectly, no but it is working well and I’m doing just one job which is to try to figure out the best way around the course, with minor departures looking at trim. Our results improved dramatically and with the old boat, we ran off a 5 year championship string. With the new boat, we are still figuring it out, so our results are middle of the pack but we are getting better as we figure out the responsibilities.

If you equate this to life off the water, it is the recognition that in any team there is a person that calls the shots but he or she doesn’t have to do all of the critical things. They need to train others and then let them get on with the job. Of course they need to keep an eye on things, but their job is to make sure the process is proceeding in the right direction and that all of the jobs are being done well. If you train people well, then they can do the jobs better than you can, and you can keep your eyes open for bumps in the road or considering the topic of these articles, waves in the lake.

I also learned that there is only so much that I can do and still be effective. If I take on too much then I don’t do anything well, so I concentrate on the tasks that have the highest return.

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