Leadership Lessons From the Sea

Crane Stookey brings a unique perspective to coaching business leaders and organizations through individual and systemic change. As a former tall-ship officer and founder of the Nova Scotia Sea School, Stookey draws from the lessons he learned while at sea, such as the importance of trusting your crew and letting the boat’s needs guide your decision-making. He also believes strongly in using meditation to bring the power of one’s inner thoughts to his or her outer performance.

Stookey (pictured, on his ship) shares many of his insights in the 2012 book Keep Your People in the Boat: Workforce Engagement Lessons From the Sea. His top advice: Leadership is not about the leader.

“If you’re struggling as a leader, it’s probably because you think it’s about you,” he tells the Intuit Small Business Blog. “We all want to be the person on whom everything depends, leading the charge on our white horse, but that isn’t helpful. Leadership is not about getting people to do what you want, it’s about getting people to do what they want. You can create conditions in the workplace that allow people to be their best.”

Give Everyone a Place

Stookey tells the story of a young woman he was teaching to sail during a study-abroad semester at sea. She was assigned to manage the ship overnight, which required giving orders to the crew of other students. He remembers how she demonstrated astute leadership skills by trusting her colleagues’ abilities.

“We might have expected this young woman to be really in charge and run around giving orders,” he recalls. “But when it came time to tack the ship, she said, ‘Places, everyone.’ And everybody went off to find a sail that needed handling. They placed themselves around the deck and then she gave the command to tack, and we tacked the ship beautifully.

“This girl let the ship be the teacher. She let the ship take command. Everybody in it felt, ‘Wow, we’re a bunch of college science kids, but we can tack this ship on our own in the dark without any direction.’ Even telling that story now I feel moved by it.”

The story supports Stookey’s theory that leadership is really about giving people what they want and need. In this situation, he says, “People wanted to be trusted, and she trusted them.”

Free Your Mind

To enact this type of visionary leadership on land, Stookey believes that leaders must shift their mindsets. They must let go of their sense of limitation and adopt an expansive, optimistic perspective.

“The sea is so vast, but a small boat at sea is intensely claustrophobic,” he says. “You don’t have to be on a boat to experience that. We all know the experience of being overwhelmed by the everyday stresses of life. We also know the experience of having an unencumbered state of mind, which is the source of our personal best.”

The types of techniques Stookey teaches are deceptively simple. One, which he calls “stopping practice,” involves actively expanding your actual and mental horizons. He advises taking a moment to lift your gaze and “allow the vapor trail of preoccupations that you’re toying around with to dissipate.” Just be wherever you are. Do this regularly throughout the day.

Another tactic: When the phone rings, answer it on the third ring and not the first. Listening to the first two rings gives you a few seconds to pause and then begin the conversation with a clearer state of mind.

“We can take advantage of what is already happening in the day,” Stookey says. “Instead of letting tasks overwhelm you, you let the tasks refresh you and focus you. They are an opportunity to be aware of your state of mind.”

Ask the Right Questions

The expansive state of mind that Stookey’s techniques encourage is important for leaders because it brings an upbeat note to their demeanor and encourages them to observe and embrace other people’s ideas.

Leaders can become more effective simply by asking their team members what they need more and less of to do their jobs better. The answers to those questions can shed light on far more than logistical and material concerns.

“Leaders are supposed to be the visionaries, but I believe that the rank and file have vision,” Stookey says. “Those two questions can bring about operational improvements as well as breakthroughs in vision.”

Whether you’re at a conference table or on a boat at sea, he says, a clear understanding of exactly what’s needed in a given situation will always steer you right.

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  2. [...] this, you won’t have to look too far: an article on the Intuit Small Business Blog entitled Leadership Lessons From the Sea offers some advice from Crane Stookey, “a former tall-ship officer and founder of the Nova Scotia [...]