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#39 If You’re Not the Captain—Now What?

by Steven Cerri on October 19, 2007

“Risking life and death for the team!”

Imagine you’ve volunteered and you’ve been selected to crew on a California-to-Hawaii Pacific Cup race. You’ve done this before a couple of times. It’s an annual event and you take a couple weeks vacation to crew this race. You’ve trained with this crew for some time but you are still true unknowns to each other. It’s your hobby. You all volunteer for this.

You set sail heading for Hawaii on a 44-foot yacht. All is going well for the first few days. Then your boat is hit by a storm. It’s midnight and the storm is raging. The wind is blowing so hard that the rain is no longer falling vertically. You have to tilt your head sideways to experience the rain as “falling”. The wind is howling. The boat is pitching and yawing. Once in a while you’d swear it’s going to capsize. The mainsail is down. It’s too windy. The jib (the small sail at the bow of the boat) is still up to offer some control.

Everything is latched down, and you and the rest of the crew are below deck trying to ride out the storm without getting sick. The captain is at the wheel trying to maintain some semblance of control of the boat.

All of a sudden the jib sheet comes loose (the sheet is the rope that holds the jib sale at its correct attitude to the boat. The sheet ties down the sail.) It’s come loose and is flapping like a high-pressure hose without anybody to hold it. You can hear the rustle of the jib and the jib sheet even as the storm rages.

No one in their right mind would venture out on the bow of the boat to retrieve and tie down the sheet and the captain is sure not going to order or even ask anyone to take that risk. Being lost at sea in this storm at this time of the night in this location in the Pacific Ocean is not just being lost; it’s being PERMANENTLY lost. No one is going to go looking for a man overboard.

That sheet is going to be whipping around for while which means that the jib is going to be useless for that time, which means the captain will have little if any control during the storm. (The mainsail was brought down as soon as the storm began building.)

Below deck you and the rest of the crew are trying to stay calm. All of a sudden one of the crew jumps up, puts on his rain gear and steps up on deck. He ties himself in as best he can and walks to the bow. He leans forward as far as he can and as the sheet whips past his hand he grabs it, ties it down and the jib is useful again. He makes his way below deck, soaked, but energized like a man who has just been through a 300-foot bungee jump.

You and the rest of the crew are looking at this guy with two simultaneous expressions on your faces; total admiration mixed with “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR @&y$* MIND?”

While you’re reading this blog and imagining this event, Al, one of the students in my MBA program didn’t imagine it. He was on the crew where this happened.

We were taking our MBA program together; 22 students for 18 months. The module we were in at the time Al told this story was the “Organizational Development” module. We were discussing motivation. Al told this story as an example of motivation. We all acknowledged Al’s story with “wow, that’s incredible”. Then I asked the question, “So I understand the story, but why did this guy risk his life for the crew and the race? What was the motivational force?” Interestingly enough no one had an answer, not even the professors.

This to me was completely unsatisfactory. Here was a perfectly clear human behavior. No matter how you cut it, this man risked his life for the crew and for the race. The captain gave no order. The crew didn’t draw straws. Everyone was perfectly prepared to ride out the storm even if it meant they would have to pull out of the race.

And yet, someone took the risk for the team.

Imagine if you understood how to motivate people without being the captain. Imagine if you understood how to motivate people without pressuring people to take action. That’s exactly what happened here. The captain didn’t give an order. The crew didn’t feel compelled to take action. Yet someone did.

I embarked on a quest of sorts to answer my question since no one else seemed to be able to answer it. Over the years I figured it out. The piece that was missing I’ve labeled “criteria”. Everyone has criteria for their actions, for their motivations. And everyone’s criteria for work are different from their criteria for family, which are different from their criteria for play. If you can determine what a person’s criteria are for a specific context you will know exactly how to position whatever your request is so that you can motivate them to achieve it. Leadership and influence are ultimately about understanding your team’s criteria on an individual and group level. For most managers and leaders influence is usually achieved by accident, by hit-and-miss.

I’ve determined that criteria can be simply derived through a series of conversational questions. Questions my professors in the MBA program didn’t know about. The questions will uncover the powerful motivational forces that drive people to achieve.

Imagine if you can dovetail your requests with the criteria of the people who’s help you depend upon. This is what it takes to influence when you don’t have authority. And as you progress from technologist to manager or if you want to stay technical for most or all of your career, you will have to learn how to successfully influence when you don’t have authority. That in turn, will depend on your ability to understand the criteria by which other people are motivated to either cooperate or not…… ever wonder what your criteria are?

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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