Maneuver and Values-Based Leadership in Business

Interactive forum for the exchange of ideas pertaining to: the experiences of the change management consulting and hands-on leadership training firm, Santamaria & Martino LLC and the message of our book, The Marine Corps Way, which applies military strategy and leadership to business

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Learning to Lead – Outside Your Comfort Zone

Many businesses and academic institutions struggle with teaching their people how to lead: classroom-based instruction is often criticized for being “too theoretical” and “intangible”, while “feel good” events, such as ropes courses, fail to relate to real-world business needs.

Below, we describe how we custom-tailored an intense, “hands-on” leadership training / team-building event aboard sailboats to the real-world business needs of a highly regarded asset management firm. For those of you familiar with the Wharton Leadership Venture to Quantico, this sailing event was the same experience as the U. S. Marine Corps’ famed Leadership Reaction Course (LRC) – in a non-military environment.

Event Design

Our over-riding intent was to take participants outside of their respective “comfort zones” by placing them in conditions of simulated uncertainty and urgency and challenging them to maintain their composure, make rapid-fire decisions, and collaborate. Rotating through “captain” and “crew” positions on the boat, everyone had the opportunity to lead his/her team, and everyone gained a greater appreciation for each other’s contributions in the process.

After each race, we provided participants with immediate feedback on individual leadership skills and team dynamics. Because of the high (and increasing) level of difficulty, learning occurred through "a-ha!" experiences of self-realization, and we were able to identify tendencies that otherwise would not have manifested themselves during everyday firm operations.

Said participants:

  • “I thought it was a great experience – definitely difficult and sometimes frustrating, but very beneficial. The theme was decision making in the face of uncertainty and that is what we were forced to do . . . Next time I'm going to wear my hockey helmet”
  • “Personally, I found [being pushed outside of my comfort zone] extremely rewarding . . . an effective way to see what you're capable of”
  • “I thought it was fantastic that we received immediate feedback during the day. The comments that Vince & Jason had for me, really made me aware of how I am in the office. I learned that it is important to focus on a goal, but you have to be aware of what's going on around you and with your own team members. I also learned a lot about my colleagues”

Event Description

Along with certified sailing instructors, we joined four 4-member teams for four 1-hour races aboard identical 24ft J/24 sailboats.

Race 1 – “No Designated Leader . . . Then Sail Backwards.” After the crews learned about basic sail control, seamanship, and safety in the harbor, we moved to the start line and began our first race – without designating a team leader. And for the last leg of the race, boats sailed backwards. Our aim here was to see: 1) who was willing to take charge of the situation while still listening to his/her crew and 2) which teams were able to agree on a race strategy and roles & responsibilities in the most expedient manner

  • “I think getting together to communicate on a non-technical basis helps each of us understand better where the other person is coming from. Needing to work together was definitely good. I liked the fact that with the boat underway, there was no chance to debate about who would take the lead. Fast action was required so under the circumstances people were ok accepting orders whereas they might not have been if urgent action wasn't needed”

Race 2 – “Sail Change.” In this race, we designated a team leader but introduced two major disruptions: an unannounced sail change (i.e., “change the jib now”) and a subsequent announced sail change (i.e., “at the buoy 200 yards ahead, you will need to change the jib again”). Our aim here was to see: how the leader was able to 1) react to rapidly changing events and 2) then prepare for a reoccurrence and communicate a plan. Crews that proactively anticipated potential problems (and captains that provided advance notice of upcoming decisions) were able to avoid crisis situations that required heroic yet reactive efforts to “put out fires”

  • “I learned a lot about communication - what works, what doesn't, different approaches to try with different team members”

Races 3 & 4 – “Inclusive Team Leader.” In this race, the team leaders were blindfolded, and we challenged them to rely completely on the observations and recommendations of their crews to navigate the sailboats. Our aim here was to see: 1) how the boat captain was able to leverage diverse inputs from the crew to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and 2) what level of comfort the boat captain had with an impaired sense of control. Boats were successful when crewmembers provided blindfolded boat captains with detailed, tangible descriptions – in a unified voice

  • “The blindfolded exercise was incredible. It made me more conscientious of how I could improve on my own communication skills”

Event Wrap-up

After the races, we related lessons learned from the day’s activities and prescriptions from our book, The Marine Corps Way, to the firm’s specific business needs – communication, people development, and defining / reinforcing culture – in a relaxed dinner setting:

  • “I found the dinner presentation and discussion afterwards as useful as the exercise itself”
  • “Without [the wrap-up] presentation, the day would have been left hanging a bit, but it really tied everything together. Military-related analogies and anecdotes definitely keep people's attention”


Across all teams, we noticed two noteworthy trends:

Teamwork: we were most pleasantly surprised with the exceptionally high degree of cooperation and composure that all boat crews displayed: teammates were quick to help one another, boat captains maintained their poise under challenging conditions, and everyone was very receptive to the input of their colleagues

Leadership: In general, boat captains appeared reluctant to take charge of and direct their crews. Many boat captains attributed this reluctance to the high degree of uncertainty (which was “by design”): their lack of familiarity with sailing hindered their ability to make decisions with confidence.

  • Our advice to reluctant boat captains: Remember the "80% Rule"** - the longer you wait to make a decision and provide your team with a general strategic direction, the more likely are competitors – who may be just as uncertain and uncomfortable as you – to make a decision and move ahead – while your sailboat remains stalled . . . pointing directly into the wind (**the "80% Rule" holds that any decision made with more than 80% of available information is hesitation)

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