The late General Norman Schwarzkopf commanded forces during the first Gulf War, and after his retirement from active service I had hired him as a motivational speaker for a corporate recognition event.
General Norman Schwarzkopf during the first Gulf War.
He was as dynamic a speaker as he was a military commander, and his speech covered what he called his “Fourteen Rules of Leadership.”
It was Rule 13 that he emphasized:
“When placed in command, take charge. Even if the decision is bad, it is better than being stagnant.”
But his message didn’t resonate with me until several years later, when I took ownership of a new sailboat, Copy Cat.
The first order of business was to get this 23-foot New England catboat from her birthplace in Amityville, New York, to her new home on Buzzards Bay, the body of water between mainland Massachusetts and Cape Cod.
As new to sailing as I was, the thought of single-handing my new boat for a five-day passage was too daunting. As Capt. Matt at BoatSafe.com says:
“No matter how long you have been boating there is always that tense feeling when you are out there on your own. If this feeling ever goes away, you should probably take up golf.”
So I enlisted my friend Chuck -- an audio engineer who works many of our company’s corporate multimedia events and a sailor since boyhood – to accompany me on the trip and provide some pointers about sailing.
At mid-morning on the foggy third day of our passage -- off the town of Orient-by- the-Sea at the eastern tip of Long Island -- the motor suddenly died. It took only a moment to realize the boat’s 12-gallon fuel tank was dry.
Chuck immediately called for me to raise sail as fast as I could in order to regain control of the boat, because we were within shouting distance of the rocky shore.
With the sail up, we were able to heave-to (like "parking" the boat) while I radioed Sea Tow. Then Chuck and I waited in silence. I was humiliated. Chuck was angry.
In minutes, the Sea Tow boat appeared through the fog and threw us a line that we wrapped around our mast. Copy Cat was dragged to Orient-by-the-Sea Marina like a reluctant puppy on a leash.
At the fuel dock, Chuck primed and bled the diesel and the motor came back to life. He was proud of how adept he had been in getting the motor going and suggested lunch in the marina restaurant.
As we wolfed down curried chicken wraps, Chuck and I exchanged words about the fuel disaster.
“They told me the tank was full,” I said, shifting blame to the boatyard that had handed me the keys to Copy Cat.
“You’re the skipper,” Chuck shot back. “You can’t take somebody else’s word about your boat.”
With this, I realized, sailing had taught me the same life lesson that General Schwarzkopf had tried to: It was nobody’s fault but mine -- as skipper -- that we had run out of fuel.
If advice from a military man sounds too strident for you, here’s J. K. Rowling, the authorial “mother” of Harry Potter:
“There is an expiration date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”
In my next blog, “Privacy, pornography, paradox.”