Who’s in charge here?

When a lifeboat gets called to a vessel needing help it is often necessary to place a lifeboat crew member on board to help out. So when, for example, a sailing boat requests assistance and I jump on board from a big, reassuring, orange boat – who’s in charge?


Well – it’s not me.  As a lifeboatman, I have no authority on board and the responsibility for the boat and crew remains with the skipper.  But I do usually jump on board with a pretty clear idea of what we would like to happen next, which may or may not match what the skipper is expecting.   This can present some interesting dynamics (and even conflicts occasionally).

So how do I navigate that relationship?  Obviously each situation is different, each boat and each crew are different and this results in a unique system every time, so there’s an element of the hypothetical here.  That invites us to work in the land of heuristics rather than rules snd I’m drawn immediately to David Marquet‘s excellent book “Turn the Ship Around”.

In the book (which is full of really interesting and valuable leadership experience and advice – you really should put it on you reading list) David Marquet talks about “giving intent, not instructions” and that fits well into the environment I’m describing.  Actually, I’m quite constrained here as I don’t know the boat, its equipment or the crew’s capabilities so expressing intent is more natural than handing out detailed tasks.  I’ll explain to the skipper what our intentions are and we’ll discuss any questions that arise,  the skipper can then lead whatever evolutions follow in the boat’s normal way.  This provides me with an excellent opportunity to observe how the crew is working and always creates insights that make me adapt my approach – hopefully I can adopt a position of just providing information, a communication link between the lifeboat and the casualty boat.  Sometimes I need to, shall we say, express my intentions in a more detailed manner – but I try not to jump straight to task level instruction (but I confess that’s quite hard for me).

This approach leaves control with those who can take action most effectively.  It allows freedom to question (and even change) the intention, explore the possible responses and choose the most appropriate.  It enables best use of the resources available because the choices are being made by those who most intimately know what those resources are (another of David Marquet‘s diamonds – move authority to where the information is).

This sounds a lot like how I believe coaches should behave – but wetter and windier.  If you have the time, re-read this post while you imagine the first interactions between a coach and a team and see the similarities yourself.  The relationship is not hierarchical, but exploratory.  The coach should probe for a level that allows maximum freedom whilst remaining within a context that the coachee can act within.  The coach should observe relentlessly and use that data to adapt.  I don’t think I’ve ever stepped off a boat without having learnt something new and as a coach I also learn through each and every interaction.

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