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Leading with Character: Consistency is Key to Success

I think you’re going to enjoy this blog, because it features a Coast Guard Academy cadet (student) athlete who is a great role model for those eager to learn what it takes to succeed. Cadet second class (junior) Nic Reeser is a sailor who superbly demonstrates key elements of the “leading self” stage of leader development. Let’s learn how.

Leadership through Seamanship
As some of you know, sailing was an important part of my leadership development journey. I joined the sailing team when I entered the Academy as a cadet. Then, after retiring from the Coast Guard 40 years later, served as Chair of the Coast of the Guard Academy Sailing Council. The mission of the Coast Guard Academy is to develop leaders of character in service to our great nation. Academy sailing did that for me and it does the same for cadets today.

Last fall, Cadet Reeser won the 2023 Intercollegiate Sailing Association’s Singlehanded National Championship. He didn’t just win – he killed it by coming in 11 points ahead of the next closest competitor. Unlike the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), there is no Division I, II, or III in intercollegiate sailing, governed by the Intercollegiate Sailing Association (ICSA). Every college and university that supports a sailing team competes in the same category. That means the smallest school—the 1,000-person Coast Guard Academy—must go up against all the big schools like Yale, Georgetown, Brown, Tulane, Stanford, Dartmouth, and many more.

Attributes of a Winner
So, what does it take to win at that level? Asked what matters most in a regatta, many sailors might justifiably point to tactical skills. Surely those are critically important. But it’s often not the most talented athlete who wins the competition, or the smartest student who achieves the greatest career success—especially when measured over a lifetime. What, then, is the key to success—on the racecourse and, by extrapolation, in the workplace? To find out, let’s turn to an interview in the February/March issue of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association’s publication, The Bulletin.

The Power of Consistency
According to Cadet Reeser, speaking about competing for the Singlehanded National Championship, “Winning in this fleet is all about consistency. I didn’t win a single race at the Nationals qualifiers this year. I was aiming to be sixth or seventh at every weather mark…I had to make sure there was no big risk-taking or critical failures.” For context, intercollegiate sailing regattas consist of many races over the course of a day or more—up to 14 in the case of the singlehanded championships.

Unlike most other sports, sailing is intensely subject to the forces of nature. Every racecourse and every race is different. Wind, currents, sea state, the waterway, the shape of the racecourse – all those factors and more can be ever-changing. That’s part of what makes it important for the competitors to be consistent. It’s a lot like life, isn’t it? Life’s not just a 100-yard dash that you win or lose. Rather, life is more like sailing with a series of races that are averaged at the conclusion of the regatta. Being consistent can lead to greater success at work and in life over the longer term.

To drive home the point about the power of consistency, here’s another revelation from Cadet Reeser, “The regatta is won in the moments you don’t lose it; in the moments that you scramble back into the race. It’s not the person who wins by the most amount. In some cases, it’s the person who has the best worst race.” Think about that: the best worst race. Can anyone else relate? It sounds a lot like the story of my life! Coach Doug Clark foot-stomped Cadet Reeser’s statement in observing that “He’s not really trying to win races, he’s just trying to not make big mistakes.”

In life, we often can’t control the forces pushing us around, but what we can control is our mindset. We can accept the “worst races,” take a deep breath and keep searching for opportunities to do better in the next race. We can commit to making good choices, such as not taking reckless risks that can lead to critical failures. Instead of beating ourselves up and giving up, we can stay in the game and succeed by celebrating our “best worst race.”

Adapting and Seeking Opportunities
To throw a wrench into all this talk about consistency, Coach Doug Clark observed, “The biggest skill set for racing sailors on any level, is their ability to adapt and change and be versatile.” What I take from that statement combined with the previous ones is yes, you need to be consistent, but you must also embrace change and look for opportunities. So, being consistent isn’t a static state; it’s dynamic. It requires judgment, temperance, patience, boldness, and active engagement, to name a few.

Look in the mirror: What other qualities do you believe a person must have to succeed by striving to be consistent over the long term?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: