As an aspiring sailor, I’ve been slowly building my resume over the past several years. In doing so, I’ve had the opportunity to sail in a number of beautiful locations including the Caribbean, Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greece. While all vastly different, they had a common denominator; with each of these trips, land was always close by. Recently, I had the chance to level-up my experience by going offshore, far out into the Pacific off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Any one can hold the helm when the sea is calm. — Publilius Syrus
As we headed offshore, the weather and water could not have been more benign – so much so that our sailboat was in fact a motorboat as we headed 100+ miles out to sea. Despite the ongoing growl of the diesel engine, the trip was magical with dolphins, sea lions, orcas, and gray whales keeping us company. As we hit our waypoint and turned east to head back towards Vancouver Island, now firmly hidden well beyond the horizon, we shut everything down and allowed the boat to drift for a time, taking in the calm undulation of the Crayola blue Pacific and crystal clear sky above. As evening approached, we once again started up the engine and began heading back in.
As the sun set, the wind began to freshen and for the first time we were able to let out the sails of our 45’ Dufour sailboat and shut down the engine. We revelled in sailing the Pacific, far out from land and without another boat in sight. As darkness set in, so did the clouds, bringing rain, stronger winds, and rougher seas. By midnight, conditions had dramatically deteriorated to the point where not only sailing skills were being tested, but also the emotional fortitude of everyone on board.
With the boat heeling viciously to starboard, we double reefed our main, and double checked our harnesses. Beating through the waves, anything not bolted down was tossed across the cabin, including people. About 2:00AM, we lost power – no lights, no GPS, no chart plotter, no depth sounder… It was at that moment each person’s level of emotional resilience was laid bare.
Those that were triggered by the situation, immediately reacting to rather than managing their emotions, started shouting directions overtop of each other in an effort to gain control. This did nothing to alleviate the situation; it in fact made things worse by upping the anxiety levels in others and creating more confusion, further diminishing people’s ability to pause, observe what was going on, synthesize what they were taking in, and make quick, sound decisions. And then there were the others, most notably our very experienced skipper. When chaos took over, he took a deep breath, calmly and firmly directed the helmsman on deck to hold course as best he can, then turned to me and said “Hmmm…let’s try rebooting the system and see what happens.” After numerous attempts, adapting as we went, we finally got our power back and the navigation equipment back on line. With order restored, we continued to battle our way through the night, arriving exhausted yet exhilarated to our anchorage at Hot Springs Cove just after dawn.
What is so notable about this experience is how it translates directly to one of the cornerstones of my work with business leaders. It is based on the work of Viktor Frankl, from his ground breaking book Man’s Search for Meaning, which is founded upon Frankl’s observations and experiences during his time in four different Nazi death camps from 1942 to 1945. The root of his work – in my very humble opinion – can be identified in one remarkable passage from the book:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom”
There is a poetry in this line in that the idea is actually so simple; when faced with something that pushes our buttons, by taking the “space” – a moment – to acknowledge our emotions and thereby create the opportunity to manage them, we also create the space to choose how we show up. And it is being able to consciously choose how we respond to challenging situations that is at the crux of elevating one’s self to an entirely different level of leadership.
Rough waters are truer tests of leadership. In calm water every ship has a good captain. — Swedish Proverb
And, while I state the idea is simple, the practice is not. Being a healthy, whole human being also means we are (in the words of Dale Carnegie) “creatures of emotion.” The good news is that with practice, you can learn to create the space to choose. I have borne witness to any number of my clients who have embraced this practice and seen not only a demonstrable improvement in their confidence and ability to lead through difficult times, but also a complementary impact on those around them, creating a systemic “leaning in” to greater success.
I encourage you to give it a try. Start with paying attention to what happens when you are “triggered”; identify the emotions, what they feel like, what the sensation is like as your emotions announce their imminent arrival. With this practice, you can begin to the process of recognizing your emotions before they get ahead of you, which in turn gives you the opportunity to begin to manage them in a way that will provide the opportunity for you to choose how you want to lead, even in the most stimulating of circumstances.