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Leading with Character: Developing Leaders through Experience

My last Leading with Character blog talked about leader development through the experience gained from travel outside a classroom, using leadership lessons from my recent trip to Israel. This week, I’ll address leader development through hands-on experience—again, outside a classroom. Yes, I’m passionate in my belief that developing leaders of character happens outside, not inside, a traditional classroom.

No matter how good they seem, leadership programs that rely solely on leadership theory gleaned from textbooks, lectures, or someone else’s experience (i.e. case studies) only go so far in developing leaders of character. Core values must be learned and internalized, and character built, from worldly experiences that test and try a person in a way that can’t happen within the confines and safety of a classroom.

Learning from Experience
Yesterday morning I got my inspiration for this blog while sitting at my favorite bakery, Pie in the Sky, in Woods Hole, MA. I live nearby in Falmouth, MA. I awoke to a picture-perfect summer day. It was cool and refreshing; I could almost taste the clean, clear air as it passed down my throat. The birds at my feeders chirped contentedly as they savored the grape jelly I set out for them—a rich reward for raising a batch or two of demanding offspring. The cone flowers in our garden popped with color and hummed with busy bees. What a morning to sally forth on my bicycle to take in even more scenes of summer bliss!                                                                                        

I biked the four miles to Woods Hole and settled in for a popover and coffee at the bakery. While sipping my coffee, enjoying the happenings as ferries got underway for their transits to the islands, a familiar voice called out, “Hello, Admiral Stosz!” To my amazement, I looked up to see Coast Guard Commander Kevin Boyd, who served as the training officer at the US Coast Guard Academy for four years. This morning, he was in Woods Hole as the senior safety officer with a group of cadets and other safety officers embarked in 44-foot sailboats as part of the Academy’s coastal sail training program.

Leadership through Seamanship
The Coast Guard Academy uses a framework for leader development called L.E.A.D. That stands for learn from theory, experience through practice, analyze by reflection, and deepen through mentoring. That means cadets study The Leadership Challenge by Posner and Kouzes to learn the five principles of exemplary leadership; they put those principles into practice onboard the Leadership-44 coastal sail training vessels; they review the events of each day to reinforce what they learned; and they use their newfound leadership skills to mentor others. That powerful framework is a virtuous cycle that turns seamanship into leadership through the Academy’s sailing and waterfront programs.

Learning on the Water
The coastal sail training program is one of the highlights of the Academy’s leader development program because it’s a hands-on, at-sea experience unique to each cadet. During the summer of their rising junior year, every cadet gets the opportunity to sail for two weeks on one of the Academy’s Leadership-44 coastal sail training vessels. These are sturdy, 44-foot sailboats crewed by eight cadet trainees under the guidance of one or two qualified safety officers, like Commander Boyd.


The cadets rotate through positions of responsibility during the cruise. One day, they’re in charge of voyage planning and navigation from one port-of-call to the next. Another day they’re responsible for supplying the boat with food, fuel, and water. The next day they’re the watch captain, in charge of the operations of the boat and responsible for a safe transit. Although the cadets each have their discrete responsibilities, they only succeed as a team. They learn to work together, to resolve conflicts, to compromise, to have empathy, and much more.

The Power of Teamwork
The simplest tasks can become leadership lessons on a sailboat, particularly when cadets are learning the basics of how to lead themselves and others. When I served as superintendent at the Coast Guard Academy years ago, I was riding along on a coastal sail training vessel with the cadets one summer day to observe their experience. When the boat arrived at the pier, two cadets were assigned to fold the mainsail, which is attached on top of a large spar called the boom. The sail must be lowered down the mast and folded in place. I smiled as one cadet grabbed a “bight,” or section of sail at one end of the boom while another cadet did the same at the other end. But, the cadets were grabbing sections of sail on different sides of the boom, and they couldn’t seem to get coordinated.

It was exactly like my husband and I folding the sheets for our queen bed. We each want to fold in a different direction and have to stop and coordinate movements if we are to finish the job. Same with that sail. Each cadet was sure he knew the right way to fold the sail, and neither wanted to follow the other’s lead. That’s human nature. Working together on a sailboat helps people become better leaders by forcing them to overcome their natural tendencies and biases.

Back to Woods Hole. What an unexpected leadership learning experience for me! Meeting up with Commander Boyd and the other coastal sail training program safety officers renewed my pride in the US Coast Guard and reinforced my belief that our Service is in good hands with the next generation of cadet leaders of character!

Look in the mirror. Are you providing your employees opportunities to get outside the workplace and increase their leadership skills through hands-on experiences? Perhaps rotating through a short assignment on the factory floor if you’re in the manufacturing business?

Please join me again in two weeks for more on Leading with Character.

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