The docks were slick and dawn couldn’t pierce the fog. David and Suzanne went through their morning routine, spirits high with the anticipation of their first day on the water. They and their friends set out onto Lake Michigan when visibility was so poor, the four of them couldn’t see the marina’s break wall 100 feet away.

A Not-So-Fine Day for Sailing

Our leaders at Lemler Group are passionate about sailing, and although they take their boat out onto lakes here in central Indiana, it’s not the same as being out on the open water of a Great Lake. That’s why they arrange a sailing trip with their friends every few years to visit marinas and ports and experience the joys of sailing, traveling, and friendship during a packed summer vacation.

This trip began a little differently than usual, however. The first morning greeted the sailors with thick fog, and while morning mists aren’t totally unheard of, this day proved to be a once-in-a-decade experience.

Quick Trip Made Slow

Two sailboats left the marina as the sun began to peek through the fog. David and Suzanne eagerly awaited the moment when they could cut their small outboard motor and let their sail catch the cool breeze. But the moment never came. Like a lazy teenager, the lake pulled up its blanket of fog and shut the sunlight out completely.

The first leg of their journey was a 15-mile jaunt that would normally have been a long, leisurely morning’s sail. Though the pair of boats still had their main sails raised, they hung heavy and wet, serving instead to increase their small crafts’ visibility. Instead, they motored across the lake, peering for signs of clear weather and any boats that may appear in their path.

Not only was the fog preventing them from enjoying what should have been a breezy day on the water, it was also dangerous. Both pairs of sailors had GPS, which meant they wouldn’t miss their destination, but their GPS couldn’t warn them if they approached another craft in the thick fog. Knowing radar couldn’t always detect individual sailboats, David and Suzanne huddled close to their friends’ boat, hoping the cluster effect of both hulls would blip on a larger craft’s screens.

Lost on the Water

Fortunately, the first boater they came across was sitting still in the water. A cruiser that dwarfed their little boats, their new friend had appeared suddenly and silently, and as the pair passed, slipped behind David and Suzanne, matching their speed.

After traveling a few miles, the muffled engine noise of another cruiser approached this unlikely trio from behind. In the blink of an eye, another vessel popped out of the fog, speeding past David and Suzanne, and attracting the attention of their traveling partner. The cruiser that had been following them suddenly revved its engine, pursuing its more appropriately powered counterpart.

When this happened, David and Suzanne finally realized the reason for the cruiser’s strange behavior. They guessed the captain didn’t have a GPS to find their way. That’s why the boat had to rely on whoever he could find to help navigate the thick fog, which never lifted.

Until another cruiser came along, he had to be patient, following a pair of motoring sailboats, slick with condensation and nervous about what they would find in the fog.

Unlikely Leaders

Though David, Suzanne, and their friends had no idea their sailboats would be the best guide for a much faster cruiser, dire circumstances called for a reversal of roles.

That day on the water, our leaders gained a unique and concrete example of a vital lesson for organizations facing challenges and unexpected situations. When a leader or a company can’t see far ahead — when they lose their vision or fail to predict outcomes — they’ve got to slow down. They also can’t be afraid to learn from and follow people whose talents meet the needs of their particular struggle.

We all lose our way sometimes. It’s humbling to trust an unlikely leader during times of confusion, but that experience can make leaders better servants when things go well.