Leadership Lesson: Failing at Sailing

A couple months ago we took one of my good friends sailing the day before his wedding. With none of us possessing any knowledge of the water sport, our original intention was to take a lesson and then spend some time on our own sailing in beautiful Mission Bay, San Diego.

Then we met Drew. Drew worked for the rental company and assured us that taking a lesson would be a waste of our money and that he could teach us the basics through a short conversation. Not knowing otherwise, we agreed. We excitedly dawned our life jackets and piled into the small 16’ vessel.

Then Drew hurriedly explained:

“That’s the rudder,” as he pointed to something at the end of the boat, “And you can guide the ship with it. This post at the bottom of the sail is the boom; watch out for it if the wind shifts. Pull these ropes to direct the sail and you are all set.” With that, he pushed us away from the dock and went to help other customers.

Not a one of us could hide the surprised looks on our faces. With out any real knowledge or training, we had been shoved out of the nest. It was time to sink or swim (almost literally!).

While we picked up sailing WITH the wind fairly quickly, heading back (which we later learned is done by a process called “tacking”) was completely different. I eventually flagged down another boater who graciously towed us in.

When I tell this story to people who sail they look horrified. “He did what?” they ask. Clearly sending someone off on their own without knowledge and direction is not wise.

Leadership Lesson:

Developing leaders is not about shoving people out of the nest who lack the knowledge and experience necessary to succeed.

Developing leaders is about:

  1. Assessing the competency and commitment of your individual team members.

  2. Providing a high level of direction when competency is low, but commitment is high.

  3. Providing a high level of accountability when commitment is low, but competency is high.

  4. Providing both when both are low.

To read more about this, check out Ken Blanchard’s excellent book entitled Leading at a Higher Level.

Why is it important not to thrust people into flying solo until they are ready? What are some of the dangers of this leadership method?


  1. Anonymous says:

    Dude, are you still in the San Diego area? I live in San Diego and it would be cool to grab coffee. If not maybe next time. Anyway, great post. I have worked at many place where they give a quick training then through you into it. I found my confidence in my work was low. This was until I was able to train myself or get use to the new position. Thank you for sharing. 


    • Hey! This was earlier this summer but I will definitely hit you up the next time I come through there! Coffee would be great! Thanks for commenting too! I certainly have been through the “training by fire” process. It is not the best!

  2. I have seen time and again when you push someone into a position before they are trained, they eventually burn out, shipwreck and look for something else. It’s why in Ignite, we require each leader to go through the StrengthsFinder book, so we can get an idea of how they are wired and develop a personal leadership development plan based on how they think and what their strengths are.

    • Shipwrecked? Thankfully my story didn’t end like that :-) what book is that? Is that a published book or something your ministry produced?

      • Yea, you definitely wouldn’t have like the word shipwreck when you guys were sailing. HA!

        It’s a book by Tom Rath that you can find on Amazon. It comes with a code to actually take the StrengthsFinder test online to see how your brain is wired. I have seen that it is right on (backed by years of research) and has helped even me to realize what I should focus on. The premise is that we should focus on our strengths, not on our weaknesses. Great book. 

        It’s titled StrengthFinder2.0 
        Get it. Read it. Take the test. Get it for your leaders. Definitely worth it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great post Noah – terrible experience though!

    I agree with you that you shouldn’t shove people into the abyss, but would you agree that there are times when pushing them out of the nest (while you’re close by) is a reasonable / good thing? For example a baby bird drops to the ground from a nest (albeit the Mother is close by to defend) – but the bird MUST be pushed out to learn on it’s own. I’d be interested in your thoughts! I’ve often searched for this balance.

    • While I do see the value of pushing a bird out of the nest, I think that there are some things that are more likely to come naturally than others. Also, as you mentioned, the mother bird is there to swoop down and prevent that experiment from going awry. I feel that I’m not a good a leader if I “push someone out of the nest,” without ever teaching or equipping them and not sticking around to support them. Have you ever read Blanchard’s Leading At a Higher Level? His model for leadership development, Situational Leadership II, addresses this. It’s great stuff!

      • jgangwish says:

        Awesome Noah! I haven’t read that book yet I’m adding it to my list! I always appreciate your blog, thanks for the dialog! I appreciate your perspective and agree : leaders should develop, serve those they are leading.

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