Hello and thank you for visiting my website! This is the very first entry in my “Leading with Character” blog, and I hope you enjoy it.
Do Something Hard
I spent my 40-year career with the US Coast Guard learning about leadership and character development first-hand through experiences that tested and tried me at every level. Looking back to when I first started my career as a cadet, or student, at the Coast Guard Academy, I grew the most when I committed to doing something HARD. Like the time I was sailing aboard the Coast Guard’s 300-foot sailing barque, Eagle, on a summer training cruise in the Atlantic Ocean. I was a third class cadet (sophomore), and we cadets were being trained in seamanship and leadership by the permanent crew.
One night we awoke to the urgent sound of the “sail stations” alarm blasting into our berthing area. Imagine a smoke alarm times 10. We cadets jumped out of our racks (beds) and into our foul weather gear. The ship had been hit by a sudden squall, and all hands were required on deck to take down some of the sails so the ship wouldn’t be knocked over.
The night was pitch black. The wind howled so strongly and loudly we could hardly hear the commands shouted by those on duty. I struggled to move on deck as the wind funneled fiercely through the rigging, forcing me backward. The blinding sea spray stung my eyes, and the heel of the ship caused me to slip and slide precariously on the wet decks.
A square-rigged sailing vessel like the 300-foot Eagle has two masts 150 feet high—the foremast and the mainmast—along with a mizzen mast on the stern. There are five sails on the fore and main masts, with the highest one hanging way up near the 150-foot mark. As inexperienced trainees, we cadets followed orders issued by the permanent crew in charge of our training. A few of us were ordered aloft to furl, or take in, the sails to stabilize the ship. I spontaneously volunteered to climb all the way to the top to furl the uppermost sail called the “royal.” I don’t know what compelled me, a quiet and shy young woman, to take that leap. I was both terrified and thrilled.
Three of us cadets cautiously climbed aloft and positioned ourselves on one side of the yardarm. Battered by the howling gale, we desperately tried to get our arms around and bring in the huge sail. We stood on wiggling foot ropes holding onto a metal bar running along the yardarm, while the billowing sail threatened to knock us off. Eagle seamanship requires “one hand for the ship; one hand for yourself,” and we took that “one hand for yourself” part very seriously that dark and stormy night! It was very, very scary, and my adrenaline rushed as fast as water through a fire pump.
Once we finished furling the sail and securing it to the yardarm with attached lines, we were supposed to work our way along the yardarm back to the mast and climb down to the deck. One cadet had frozen in place on the yardarm in a complete state of panic and wasn’t responding to commands. Both of his hands clutched the metal bar in a death grip, and he could not move. We had to unpeel his fingers one at a time and talk him back to the mast and down to the deck.
Later that night, once the intense excitement ended and I was back in my cozy little rack, a wave of emotion surged through me. I felt as if I’d passed a personal test on that yardarm. I had not been the one to freeze. Despite my shortcomings as a young leader, I discovered an untapped strength. Under incredible pressure, I found the courage to perform a difficult duty and to help others.
Leadership and character development happen best when you’re out of your comfort zone, facing difficulty or even danger. Embrace those opportunities to do something hard!
Think about a time you were challenged beyond what you thought was possible. Did you emerge stronger?
Please join me next time to continue our discussion on Leading with Character.