Push v. Pull: A Leadership Story

sailing

It hadn’t been a very good race. In fact, it wasn’t an understatement to say it had been a disaster. To Peter Smith it was embarrassing just to show his face in the clubhouse afterward. He was at a complete loss to explain how it had happened. He felt like had just managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

He’d put together a decent crew. There were no rookies on the boat. Everyone knew their jobs and some had even sailed together before on other boats. Some even had more experience sailing than Peter did. It should have been a pretty decent team.

The boat was brand new. It was the latest club racer with all the bells and whistles. It was blazing fast on the water upwind and downwind. They had all the right equipment, the right sails, and every reason to win.

That’s why their performance was all the more frustrating for Peter. They’d sucked. There was no getting around it. He felt like he’d made all the right moves and still managed to fail. He’d reviewed it backwards and forwards and still had no idea what to do. It was definitely time for a beer.

Still licking his wounds Peter took a seat at the bar. Things were hopping and the whole place was abuzz with sailors recounting the day’s action. It happened that Pete had picked a spot next to one of the club’s old timers, Rex. Pete knew him only by reputation, but he was supposed to be one of the best racers in the club.

Rex was the gregarious type and soon introduced himself to Peter and asked how his race had gone. Beer now in hand, Peter proceeded to tell the story of the day’s humiliation.

“We went out on the water early and did some practicing before the race. We needed to get used to working with each other and get the kinks straightened out. We had no problem there. A few short tacks, a few gybes and we were ready to go.

So race time comes around and we get to the start and begin working for a good spot on the starting line. You know how it is, it’s a tough fleet, so there are lots of boats and they are all pretty intense. If you leave those guys an opening, they are going to take it and you can kiss a good start goodbye.

This is where we had the first hint that there might be an issue. As the maneuvers on the start line became more intense, the crew execution started to weaken. A boat would cut us off and we would have to spin to avoid them. As we would execute the spin, one of the trimmers would make a mistake and we would get stuck, stalled out behind the line.

Of course we would recover and try again, but is was the same story all over again. I’d have to execute another rapid maneuver and the trimmers would blow it again! It was intolerable. I began to yell, because we were never going to win a race performing like this. I don’t think the yelling helped much (in fact they seemed kind of annoyed), but what else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t exactly trim the sheets for them, could I?”

Peter saw Rex frown as he described this last bit, but he was starting to get some momentum in the story, so he powered on, “Anyway, when the starting gun when off, we weren’t in a good position and ended up starting in the second rank, sucking wind behind all the good guys who had managed to get off the line with good starts.

From there, things went tolerably well on the first beat to the windward mark. We did the best that we could with a bad start, but we still ended up toward the back of the fleet as we prepared to round the windward mark. Strategically, there wasn’t much we could do until we reached the mark, and we managed to execute well, with no major screw ups.

Of course that all changed when we reached the mark. That’s where everything fell apart. As we rounded the mark, the bowman wasn’t ready and we launched the spinnaker late as I was trying to gybe set and cover the competition. Nobody was ready! We ended up with the spinnaker wrapped around the forestay and the bowman was screaming at the trimmers to ease up on the sheets. There he was on the foredeck, flailing away trying to untangle the mess, as boats went by us on either side. Jesus was he slow! I hollered at him to hurry up, but I don’t think he was listening, because nothing changed. It was costing us the race.

Finally we got the spinnaker sorted out and we got ourselves back in the race. Only now we were at the very back of the fleet. That’s right, we were dead last. As if that weren’t bad enough, when we eventually got to the leeward mark, it was an even bigger disaster!”

Peter paused for a sip of his beer and continued, “I told the crew that we had to move faster to keep in the race, but it didn’t help. They just couldn’t execute. By the time we crossed the finish line, there was complete silence on the boat. No cheers from the crew. We all felt like we never wanted to do that again. I’m completely baffled. How could this have happened? Where can I get a good crew? I need a crew that can execute, not a bunch of whiners who shout at each other when things go wrong.

Look, I can’t change that it’s a race. We’re not in this to have a good time. We’re here to win a race. Why can’t anybody understand this? I need a little positive attitude here. I need people with a will to win! Where can I get some of that? We sucked!”

There was a long moment of silence. Rex was shaking his head and chuckling quietly to himself. He paused and looked at Peter with an assessing sort of gaze and said. “That’s a helluva story. I’ve seen it before. You want my advice?”

Peter looked down and swirled the beer at the bottom of his pint thoughtfully for a moment. Then he looked up and replied, “At this point, yes. I’ll do anything.”

“Buddy, what you are doing is pushing these guys, and what you really should be doing is pulling with them. You don’t succeed by pushing a team, you succeed by pulling along with them.” He said.

Peter frowned, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Rex paused to take another sip of his beer and continued. ”It’s like this, You can push the problems on the team. You can make it all their problem. In that situation, at the best, you are simply not helping, and at the worst, you are actually creating additional problems for the team.”

“Problems? What do you mean? I don’t give problems.” objected Peter.

“Hold on, let me explain: Let’s take your race today as an example. When you were maneuvering on the start line, what did you do to your trimmers?” Rex asked.

“I didn’t do anything to them. I spun the boat about and it was their job to trim the sails properly to execute the spin.”

“And did you tell them you were going to spin, or did you just slam the tiller over and wait for them to figure it out?” Rex tilted his head as he asked this last question.

“Well…I had to spin. I didn’t have any choice. Otherwise we would have hit another boat.” Peter said rather defensively.

“OK, so you had to spin, but you didn’t tell anyone what you were going to do, right?”

“OK, alright, yeah.”

“So, here’s the question: When you do that, turning without telling anyone, are you suddenly creating a problem for the trimmers or are you helping them?”

“Well OK, it’s not helping I guess.”

“That’s right. You’re creating a challenge or impediment for the trimmers to overcome – you’re pushing the problem on them. Not only do they have to trim the sails as fast as they can, but they also have to be mind readers – guessing at when you may spontaneously change direction without telling them.

Let’s look at this another way. What could you do to help them?”

Peter looked a bit sheepish and said, “I could call out the maneuver before it happens?”

“Right, if you did that you would be helping to make their jobs easier. You would be setting them up to succeed rather than setting them up to fail. You would be contributing to the successful execution of their work.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Peter said a little petulantly. “But I’m still not really sure what you mean by this ’pushing vs. pulling’ thing.”

“OK, well let’s talk about that mark rounding you did. What do you have to do to round a mark?”

“Hundreds of things!” Peter exclaimed. “Everyone has dozens of tasks that they each have to perform in a choreographed fashion in order for a mark rounding to be successful.”

“And what did you do to help them round the mark?”

“I did the steering, their jobs are their problem.”

“So again, how could you help?”

Peter gave it some thought and then said rather tentatively. ”Call out the maneuver?”

“Yes. What else could you do to help?” Said Rex.

“Well, I suppose I could slow down the turn in order to give them more time to make their adjustments?”

“Bingo!” exclaimed Rex. “That’s more like it. You have to be thinking of what you can do for the team to make their jobs easier. You need to think beyond your own role and be constantly asking yourself: How can I help the team? What can I do to help this team work like a well oiled machine? As long as you are thinking only of your job, you aren’t really part of the team. To be part of the team, you need to be pulling along with them to help them reach the goal.”

Peter nodded his head, “OK, I think I get that, but it’s kind of abstract don’t you think?”

“No, not really. I see it out on the race course all the time. You get these hyper competitive types rushing about without thinking about the team. They rush through mark roundings thinking only of themselves and winning the race and not about the crew. The poor crews are pulling as hard as they can, but they just aren’t in synch with the helmsman. They aren’t pulling together as a team.

It’s push vs. pull.” he finished.

Peter looked down pensively and was quiet for a minute. Then he called over the barkeep and bought Rex another beer. “Thanks. I appreciate the advice. I’m going to have to give that try.”

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