fishing boat, out at sea
PHOTO: Aleksey Malinovski

“Respect is earned,” my father would always say. He was the commander of a Coast Guard base on the busiest fishing port on the West Coast. That statement was, and still is, among the most valuable lessons I’ve taken with me. 

I had a different upbringing than most, to say the least. At the age of 11, I signed on to my first fishing vessel. The work was 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for 110 days straight. And it was often in the very unforgiving environment of the North Pacific.

After earning my captain’s license at age 18, I ran boats in Alaska to put myself through undergraduate and graduate school and ultimately landed where I am now, with 30 years in the technology industry. Along with learning how to earn respect, my decade in the fishing industry has taught me a few invaluable lessons about leadership, lessons reflected in how I guide my business and teams today.

1. The Power of Trust

A team’s elasticity is a direct function of its trust in their captain. As with fishing, the essence of business is dealing with uncertainty and challenge. Just as weather fouls, so might market conditions; so too might competitive threats rise, resources tighten, strategies pivot and organizations change. 

How well a team takes challenges in stride depends on the degree to which they believe the leader has an achievable vision and the ability to navigate to that promise. That trust is earned, not dictated. It takes time. Without it, people will jump ship at the soonest opportunity.

Related Article: How to Cultivate the Human Side of Leadership

2. The Downside of Anchoring

Anchoring has a temporary benefit, but also holds the power to produce failure. There are short periods of time when holding fast to a focused point is needed. However, if the fish are not likely directly below — which they rarely are — we won’t find them by simply letting the ship swing the length of the chain. We must pull anchor and go somewhere else.

Similarly, it is very common for individuals and teams to anchor on a given perspective and not swing far enough from that anchor to see the actual truth. This is especially dangerous when information is developing about the future. Anchoring is a powerful cognitive bias that can produce faulty conclusions about markets, competitors, technology limits and industry movements.

3. Resilience and Humor Go a Long Way 

Resilience is the rudder of success. Conditions are frequently challenging; perseverance is crucial. When we take the occasional broadside wave, we must quickly straighten out and get back to the task at hand. For most individuals this is a learned response: leadership by example goes a long way toward facilitating that learning. When resilience is demonstrated by entire teams, the win rate is exceptionally high.

There are days when your strength and ability to navigate adversity gets pushed to lengths you never thought possible. Out on the rough seas when you are dog-tired, humor makes long days feel shorter, and dark days feel brighter. It’s almost impossible to hear the occasional outburst of laughter without the corners of your mouth turning up, even if you’re not in on the joke. Similar to the open deck of a working boat, an open office environment promotes the spread of infectious good humor, closed offices insulate the team from this powerful gift.

Related Article: A Lesson in Leadership and Building Resilient Organizations

4. Integrity Above All Else

When faced with daunting and life-altering situations, you quickly learn the importance of character. Integrity is the only defense against doing the wrong thing in tumultuous times. After you lose your integrity, the rest is easy. For that reason, I prioritize integrity above all else in evaluating new hires.

In order to accomplish anything as a team, an air of mutual trust needs to be present. That means you need to trust your team, they need to trust you, and they need to trust each other. The first step is to hire trustworthy people — people who are honest, open and self-motivated enough to work for the good of the company. 

In support of that, it's the leader’s responsibility to create a culture and an atmosphere that encourages both honesty and inter-team dependence. Allow your employees to express their opinions and air their grievances freely without fear of penalty. Admit mistakes, be transparent about your motivations, and reward your employees for their accomplishments. These habits breed a sense of familiarity and trust, which will allow your team to work more efficiently — and be happier doing it.

Trust must be carefully placed, then relied upon deeply. It’s common for teammates to be back to back, or out of sight completely, doing a job that is different than yours. Yet success depends on both jobs being done effectively and with consideration to the needs of each member of the team. We are co-dependents pursuing a joint outcome.

One of the happiest days in my life was the day I hung up my boots. But the lessons from my 10 years fishing are indelibly a part of who I am and define the principles I carry in business today. Put these lessons to work in the context of your own team, and gradually refine them to the point where they're appropriate for your culture and your position. Only through your own experiences will you be able to fully craft yourself as an exceptional leader. I still work on it every day.