Four Leadership Rules of Sailing

By David McCuistion

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Leadership rules and team building are much-talked-about leadership topics in today’s business world.

While a lot of my leadership skills and practices were achieved through training, a huge amount came from my involvement with the following sports throughout my life:

  • Football
  • Baseball
  • Umpiring and Refereeing
  • Physical Fitness Competitions
  • Sailing

Key to Success

As I was watching NASCAR racing one time, I took note of and remembered the team-building training of pit crews, which are key to racing success.

In the span of fewer than fifteen seconds, pit crews can change four tires, refill the fuel tank, clean the windshield, remove litter from the front grill, and repair minor damages.

I particularly noticed the crew member removing a tire and gently rolling it away. While installing the new tire, another crew member quickly rolled or carried the tire away.

Everyone has an assignment, and with methodical excellence, carries out their individual tasks in perfect rhythm with the other team members.

Teamwork Expertise

Sailing, regardless of the size of the craft, like a NASCAR Pit Crew, requires teamwork, expertise, and skill to safely sail a craft smoothly through the water.

During one of my sailing classes, I remember the instructor, a retired Navy Captain with years of experience sailing his personal 40-foot craft around the world, telling us the four rules of sailing.

These four rules indicate the immense teamwork required to sail a craft, especially when part of a racing team.

They can easily be tailored to leadership development. They are also quite appropriate to modern team building and teamwork leadership.

Four Leadership Rules of Sailing

My sailing instructor explained the four rules of sailing in this manner:

  • Keep the people in the boat
  • Keep the water out of the boat
  • Don’t hit anyone
  • You have to look good

Simple enough, wouldn’t you think? I can tell you from experience it is much more difficult than the rules imply, regardless of the number of people in the boat (or in the team).

Let’s look at some of the leadership skills required to follow these rules and smoothly sail (guide) your team to success.

1. Keep the People in the Boat – On the Team

Take care of your people.

Ensure that their basic physiological needs are being met.

Maintain a safe and secure work environment, treat everyone with respect and dignity, create an environment of empowerment and creativity to build confidence and self-esteem, and permit them to grow emotionally, spiritually, and morally in a way that gives meaning and purpose to their lives.

Maintain constant training and life-long learning opportunities to improve personal expertise and skills that contribute to organizational and personal visions.

Create a worthwhile recognition program that instills confidence and creativity. Enable a path to promotion for those super-players with recognized capabilities.

In short, a leader values each team member as someone who keeps the boat sailing toward its intended objective and the overall mission for success.

2. Keep the Water Out of the Boat – Protect Them

Prevent contradictory leadership from sources that disrupt the team and question the motive and legitimacy of the leader.

Support them, go to bat for them, take steps to build team-member confidence, and trust that says, “I trust that you made the right decision and that you are working for the good of the team.”

Mentor them to instill a personal and spiritual connection to you, the leader, and to the team. Make them feel like a valued member of the organization.

Help them problem-solve personal issues that prevent their total focus on the team’s vision and purpose. Take an interest in their life and their well-being.

3. Don’t Hit Anyone – Conflict Resolution

The conflict that isn’t confronted is conflict unresolved.

Leadership must be ready and capable of resolving conflicts, regardless of the magnitude of the problem.

Leaders need to be skilled in relationship building with empathy and exhibiting a caring attitude about individual success and professional growth.

Create team accountability practices that enable individual team members to resolve internal conflicts. Resolve disruptive issues at the lowest level possible.

Leadership requires a keen eye for disruptions in the personal lives of team members that interferes with their ability to perform at high levels of success.

4. You Have to Look Good – A Professional Appearance

External perception is extremely important to the success of the overall team. Looking good goes beyond the physical appearance of team members.

Looking good means your professional appearance is sharp, neat, and clean. Team appearance projects a professional customer service attitude that enhances the team’s abilities to meet the needs of the customer.

This extends to your physical plant, which to the customer, indicates your team and organizational pride.

Each team member looks good because they feel that the organization is an extension of themselves – their pride, their professionalism, and their desire to deliver top-notch customer service.

Leadership team-building practices – just as in NASCAR and with sailing teams – are a key to organizational success. Team cohesion requires a caring and empathetic attitude to keep people performing at top-notch levels of performance.

What are the Leadership Rules of Sailing?

If you have ideas about leadership rules that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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David McCuistion
David McCuistion
David is a retired Naval Officer with extensive leadership and management experience including Officer-in-Charge of a major communication facility, in secondary education teaching leadership, and over five years public speaking on Servant Leadership and organizational development topics.
  • Love the use of sailing for leadership qualities. Having sailed on any number of big boats and smaller class boats – the crew is everything. However, I have had my share of Captain Bligh types which destroys morale and team work literally becomes sink or swim.

  • Ramdeo Choudhary says:

    The qualities expressed by the author are essentials for an effective leadership. It is also true that every leader knows about these perquisites. The problem lies in implementation. Some are successful and some are not in spite of having all the technical skills needed. Then the whole issue boils down to personality traits which need to be aligned with the implementation of leadership parameters. I may be an excellent coach but an utter failure on the field in high pressure situations. Therefore a leader should be such that he can implement the leadership skills while managing his team.

  • David McCuistion says:

    Thank you Hal for the comment. I too have sailed under a Capt. Bligh of modern times – a very unpleasant experience.

    Ramdeo, I agree with the implementation factor of your comment. Leaders may know the ideas expressed above, but many fail to follow a “servant or serving” practice in team improvement and cohesion. Thank you for the comment.

  • David McCuistion says:

    Thank you William. Appreciate the comment.

  • Hal Schlenger says:

    Any analogy to sailing is good. Much of what you shared relates back to respecting and caring for your crew. Actually aligns with the Golden Rule.

    BTW: Another rule to consider: When racing, the crew adjusts everything to maximize efficiency. When cruising, the helmsman adjusts the boat for the benefit of the crew.

  • David McCuistion says:

    Great points Hal. Thanks.

  • Mark Scott says:

    Good stuff, although it looks like the Commander’s gig line from his shirt is listing to starboard.

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