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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Air Evinrude and Five Secrets of Succesful Leaders

© 2011 by Tom King
Taken from the draft manuscript, “Swimming Lessons” by the author.

My first summer as waterfront director at Lone Star Camp, I was a married man with a wife and three month-old child. We'd spent a year working at a small independent Adventist boarding academy in Mississippi. The place was sort of a cross between the Branch Davidian compound and a reform school. Noted for its stern discipline and tough work/study program, the school drew kids who'd been kicked out of every other Adventist boarding academy in the country. My bride of just over a year and I felt like birds released from a cage.

We set up shop in the camp headquarters building. She ran the camp store and cared for our new baby. I ran the waterfront. My crew were a young and high-spirited bunch, with all the hormonal energy that goes with youth.

We had a big new boat that summer - another V6 inboard/outboard like the one my friend Jack, the ski instructor, had earlier tried to kill me with. Jack and his buddy Tim were back in charge of water skiing class again. Both had recently been married and I figured they might be a bit more settled this time around.

Silly me.

A couple of weeks into the summer, they had to take the boat down to the marina for repairs. One of them apparently forgot to dog down the trailer hitch and as they were driving down the road to Athens, they heard a loud metallic thump. As they looked out the side window of the truck, they watched dumfounded as the boat and trailer passed them on the right. The trailer nose dived into the ditch and the motorboat took to the air.

Fortunately, God had planted four pine saplings along the fence line exactly where the boat came down. It landed exactly on top of the trees which bent backward absorbing the energy of the flying boat, which landed in a patch of woods on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Aside from a scratch on the hull, it was undamaged after it's brief career as a none-to-graceful flying machine. Those pine trees saved me from facing a major crisis (no more three thousand dollar ski boat) during my first week as waterfront director.

The tow truck driver who showed up to pull the boat out of the woods had to take down an almost intact stretch of fence in order to get the boat back out and on the trailer. It was going to be another interesting summer.

Running the waterfront that first summer proved to be a rather different experience from being just one of the gang. I was expected to provide leadership to this motely crew and insure the safety of this most dangerous area of the camp.  The boss looked to me, when there were problems on the lake. Having spent the previous year as boys dean to a dorm full of amateur terrorists had, fortunately, helped prepare me for the process.

There were several things that were key to establishing myself as a leader. I had been a recreational reader since I was small and had studied a wide range of real and fictional leaders over the years. I think, C.S. Forester's Captain Hornblower was probably my chief inspiration. My career was similar. We both started, not quite at the bottom, but as officer-tranees. Hornblower started out as a midshipman supervising a handful of sailors. I had a lot of responsibility my first summer on maintenance and supervised another guy, while learning the nitty-gritty of day to day camp operations.

I went on to become an instructor, which in the camp heirarchy was probably akin to being a ship's lieutenant. As waterfront director, I became one of the executive officer corps with a staff of 4 lifeguards, two ski instructors and sailing, canoeing and rowing instructors. In the process I learned several things about leadership.

  1. Lead from the front. The troops need to see that you are willing to get down in the ditch beside them and dig, even if you can't stay till the hole is completed. When we painted the dock, I painted underneath. My mask, fins and snorkel still have blue paint on them from that summer. I got more paint on me than anyone else did. It took weeks to completely come out of my hair – a badge of honor I wore proudly. 
  2. Use “special events” to create an intimate group about you. Do special things with your guys to cement a group identity. Stuffing 14 lifeguards, swimming instructors and kitchen girls into our Pinto hatchback two years later, created a memory that cemented our identity that summer as an intimate subgroup of the whole camp staff and my position as leader of the group.
  3. Take care of your people. Jesus, Himself, invented the upside down organizational pyramid when he said, “The last shall be first and if you would be first you must be servant to all.” When your people have needs and they come to you for help, go right to the wall to back them up. If someone needs life-jackets to be able to put all his kids on the water at once, you get down to the store and get them, even if it's inconvenient. Paint the benches in the canoeing area without the instructor asking. Get some new skis once in a while. Buy everyone a new Acme Thunderer whistle and lanyard. Do it now. Do it fast. Your people will love you for it and knock themselves out to do well for you.  
  4. Maintain your dignity at all times. No matter how much fun everyone in the group is having, you need to be a little more reserved. So when Jack and Tim went skinny skiing to celebrate the end of the summer, I kept my shorts on.  
  5. Don't nag. You are always going to have to correct people when things go wrong. Make your instructions short sweet and to the point. Let your people know clearly what you expect of them and then show them you trust them to fix it. If you intervene quickly and the first time an issue comes up, you won't likely have to face the issue again. If you ask your staff member for suggestions about how to fix the problem, you may find him surprisingly willing to go the extra mile in making things right.

I highly recommend studying the great captains and leaders of history and of fiction. The authors of the biographies and novels are students of leadership and can teach you how to effectively take charge, whether it's at home or at work. My suggested reading list includes these particularly excellent leadership studies:

  1. The Hornblower Novels by C.S. Forester – 11 books about a Napoleonic era British midshipman who rises in the ranks through talent, courage and brains.
  2. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini – An Irish doctor, unjustly sentenced to slavery in the West Indies becomes a pirate captain with an unusually high sense of honor.
  3. The Once and Future King by T.H. White – King Arthur learns how to lead from Merlin, a wise wizard and choose to champion, not “Might is Right” but the radical idea of “Might for Right”.
  4. The Army of the Potomac trilogy by Bruce Catton – Caton's historical series about the Civil War examines the leaders of the Union Army of the Potomac and the whys and werefores of their successes and failures.
  5. The Aubrey/Matchurin novels by Pat O'Brian – Obrian's incredibly detailed history of “Lucky Jack” Aubrey's career with the British Navy of the Napoleonic era. Drawn from historical record and the stories of actual naval captains, Aubrey is a brilliant tactician and a work in progress as a captain.
  6. The Autobiography of Ulysseys S. Grant by U.S. Grant. Encouraged by Mark Twain, Grant wrote this autobiography to raise funds to support his family. The book is a study in leadership under stress.
  7. A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr. - A thoroughly researched and revealing investigation into Lincoln and his leadership style.
  8. The Ender Saga by Orson Scott Card – Andrew Wiggen “Ender” to his brother and sister is a child prodigy, taken to a space-based training facility for future military leaders to fight an expected third alien invasion by a voracious species which had twice nearly conquered Earth. The book is recommended reading at many U.S. military academies as a study in leadership principles and the application of strategy and tactics.
  9. Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters – A fascinating book on business leadership and how to cope with change and turmoil in today's fast moving economy.
  10. The Art of War by Sun Tzu – The famous ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu reveals his techniques for leading soldiers to victory over your opponents. Good material about how to motivate your followers to do their best. I wouldn't want to run a business entirely on the principles in “The Art of War”, but there are some really good ideas.
  11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – A study in doing the right thing and maintaining your honor when everyone about you is without honor themselves. Great book. The movie is excellent too.
  12. 1984 by George Orwell – This is a book about leadership gone wrong. Think of it as a what not to do book. It does, however, reveal disturbing information about how repressive regimes govern. Read it and watch the news in the same day and you won't sleep well.

In researching this article, I only chose books I've read that made an impact on me as a leader over the years. In doing so, I found a book called “Great Leaders” by George Titus Ferris. In looking at Ferris' list of leaders, I didn't find very many admirable folk in there other than Martin Luther, John Knox and George Washington. The remainder of the list includes more or less unsavory charecters ranging from Robespiere and Napoleon to Cardinal Richelieu and Atilla the Hun. I prefer my leaders to have a little more character and a lot less self-interest thank you very much.

Just one man's opinion....

Tom

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