Last week I was responsible for a group of young adults on a leadership course, set on yachts on the Norfolk Broads. Although we were thinking primarily about the ideas behind situational leadership, there was lots of practice of leading and decision making.

Whatever theory we work through in the morning session, a lot of the value of the course comes from participants putting leadership into practice, gaining hugely valuable experience that can be transferred from the maritime environment back to their workplaces.

Sometimes I find this a bit stress-inducing. Last Wednesday, I had read a forecast suggesting wind-strength in the region might be 25 gusting 33. In the end, other forecasts implied this was an extreme view – they all told of strong winds to come but none as fearsome as the first outlier. The crews were given instructions to reef their sails to make them smaller. Then they were given precise instructions as to how to come into the moorings before they hit the bridge at Potter Heigham, along with lots of encouragement to remind them how much relevant experience they already had; a mix of directive and supportive since we were focussing on a coaching style.

Regardless of the effort we put in to build them up, and despite knowing that they are all reasonably competent sailors, being confident that they could get to their destination without mishap was somewhat lacking on my part. However we set sail in the expectation that the crews, and particularly the leaders skippering those people, would learn a lot from the experience.

This proved to be true. One boat in particular had something of a nightmare – they ran aground, lost a rope up the mast and their reefing started to unravel. I was watching from a distance and, despite not knowing the detail, I could clearly see it was not all plain sailing. I left them to it though; not the easiest course of action for me. Eventually they dealt with everything. They made decisions, the first of which was to anchor with their mudweight to stop anything else going wrong. From there they made a sequence of further plans and acted wisely to put everything right and sail off. Through it all, they learnt a little more about the technicalities of sailing, a lot about what they were capable of and something about good diagnosis of your crew members’ competences to prevent a future ‘oh no, that’s the wrong rope to pull’ incident. The sailing from there was great fun but the learning came from the incident.

On a lighter wind day we had another little learning point that I couldn’t have engineered – a coming together with a private boat owner because our young skipper turned the wrong way. He made a decision – something that I strongly encourage – and sailed round with the courage of his own convictions. Sadly, his call was wrong; the wind didn’t push him around far enough to miss the other boat and there was a small scrape. We reviewed¬†the incident later as he drew diagrams for the insurance form. As we talked through his options he¬†realised the lesser consequences of turning the opposite way and why that would have been an even better course of action (better than what he did and far outweighing the do-nothing option). This accident also highlighted a mistake on my part – he gave his own details away to the private owner but neglected to take theirs. I missed something crucial from my briefing that has never come to light before since we’ve not encountered a version of this type of incident in the past.

The ethos of the cruise is to help young people become better leaders, in the sailing context but with impact on their other worlds. By allowing them to gain experience they will become wiser and that wisdom will lead to good future decisions. I sometimes wish though that experience didn’t come so often through mistakes made, as a result of bad decisions. I can’t argue though with the power of this style of learning and I love the ‘aha’ moments that come from reviewing them.