Lighthouse Leadership: How to Lead Your Team When the Storm Hits

Not all leadership situations are the same.  Sometimes the way ahead is clear to all, and leading is easy.  But it’s when the storms roll in and the path is obscured that leaders earn their keep.  These are the lighthouse leadership moments that matter the most.  With the help of a story of amazing bravery, here’s what that means, and how to keep your team on course even on the darkest nights.

Lighthouse Leadership


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The Worst Storm in History

The William Edenborn was in trouble.  It was late November 1905, and all night long the massive ore ship had been struggling to survive what would become known as the worst storm in the recorded history of the Great Lakes.  By the time it was over, twenty-nine ships would be wrecked or severely damaged.  The Edenborn was going to be one of them.  The giant barge she was towing, the Madeira, and its 10-man crew, would be another.

For hours the heavily laden Edenborn had battled 80mph winds, blinding snow, and towering, frigid seas, but it was a losing battle with the equally large barge in tow.   By 3:30 AM, fearing that the winds were driving him relentlessly towards the rocky shore, the captain ordered the tow rope cut, and the Madeira was cast adrift. 

Finally freed of his hazardous towing duties, the captain was anxious to get to the relative safety of deep water.    Fatigued and disoriented, he ordered “full speed ahead.”  But in his misguided efforts to escape, he ran his ship directly onto the rocky north shore of the lake.  The Edenborn broke in two.  One sailor died from the collision, and the ship was a total loss.

Lighthouse Leadership - The Madeira
The Madeira, a 436-foot schooner barge

Meanwhile, the Madeira, the enormous barge he had cast off, was helpless in the face of the driving wind and towering waves.  At 5:30 AM, she also wrecked, smashing into the unforgiving granite face of Gold Rock cliff. 

The destruction of the barge may very well have meant the end of the crew, but for the actions of one man.

Making the Leap

Even as icy waves relentlessly hammered the stricken Madeira, crewman Fred Benson decided that he had to act.  In the dark of the storm, he found a coil of rope, summoned his courage, and jumped with it from the deck down to a rocky outcropping at the base of the cliff.  There, soaked and pummeled by the frigid seas, he climbed the 60-foot cliff to the top. 

Shivering and groping in the dark, he found a rock, and with numb fingers tied it to one end of his rope as a weight.  Feeling his way to the edge of the cliff, he tossed the end of the rope down to the deck of the barge.  One by one, eight of his stranded crewmates were able to swing and then climb to safety. 

Two days later, the survivors were finally rescued from the cliff top.  They were suffering from exposure but safe, in a storm that ultimately claimed 33 lives across the Great Lakes.

Later, leaders of the shipping companies lobbied Congress to build a lighthouse near the site of the wrecks.  By 1910 the Split Rock Lighthouse was in operation.  It was too late to help the Edenborn and Madeira, but may have helped others.

What can we take from this story to help us steer our own ships?

Lighthouse Leadership Moments

The higher we go as leaders, the more disorienting our operating environment can become.  Our teams grow larger.  We interact with more people who have broader ranges of experience than we have.  Often those people have conflicting agendas.  The atmosphere becomes politicized, and the problems that arise become bigger, more complex.  The “right” answer becomes less and less clear until sea and sky blend into one, and all reference points fade from view. 

Then, a problem suddenly arises, and now the storm is raging.  We know we need to make a decision and gun the engines.  But which direction takes us onto the rocks, and which to safety?  

Those are lighthouse leadership moments.  Where does the light come from?   The values we ascribe to, and how we bring them alive, both on blue-sky days, and during the storm.  Here’s how.

Lighthouse Leadership

Build it before you need it.  Out on the lake, when the storm hits it’s too late to decide we need a lighthouse.  It’s best to build them before the clouds roll in so we don’t find ourselves directionless in the dark, like the captain of the Edenborn.

Fortunately for us, it’s never too late to pause a moment to decide what values are most important.  One way is to find some quiet time, gather the team, and ask a few simple questions:

  • How must we behave as a team in order for us to be successful?
  • What should we be doing to make this team stronger?
  • As we interact, what is most important for the long-term health of the team?

And then, when the conversation starts to stall, ask one more question: 

  • How can we do what we do in a way that will guarantee failure?

This last question comes courtesy of my friend Bob Tiede.  It will draw some fun looks from the team, but at the same time it will really help to define where the rocky shores are.  Whatever the answer is, focus on figuring out how to do the opposite.

As a result of this conversation you might come up with a list of several values, like teamwork, trust, empowerment, accountability.  That’s a great start.  Write them out, and define what they mean.  These are the cornerstone values to build your lighthouse upon.

In building this list, we’re essentially drawing the outline of our organizational culture.  We’re putting names to the values the team needs to live by to be successful.  Keep them short and easy to fix on, like bright stabs of light from a lighthouse.

Put it where it can be seen.  There is little value in a lighthouse that sits safely inland.  To function properly, people have to know where it is.   Like Split Rock Lighthouse perched on its cliff-top, we have to keep those values in sight all the time.

I’m not talking about all those “motivational values posters” on conference room walls.  Those just blend into the background like so much old wallpaper.  A better way to keep them visible is to talk about them all the time. 

For example, when giving positive feedback, include the relevant value as part of the praise.

“Serena, I really appreciated the way you helped George when he was struggling with that project – that’s exactly the kind of teamwork we need around here.  Thank you!”

Other ways include tying them into performance reports, regular check-ins, and even reprimands.  In meetings, one way to kick things off is to ask the team for examples they have seen of those values in action in each other.  Talking about values gives them life and keeps them front of mind.

Leaders talk about values to live by, and leaders live by the values they talk about. Click To Tweet

Use it as a guide.  The captain of the Edenborn was lost in the dark.  He had nothing to base his decisions on, yet he felt he had to act.  In the panic of the moment, he chose poorly.

When those kinds of decisions arise is when we will be most glad that we took the time to establish our lighthouses.  Pull up that list of values and look it over.  When weighing options, focus on the decisions that best fulfill the values you’ve been talking about.  Discard the options that don’t.

That values list may not tell us exactly which way to turn our ship, but it will definitely help us avoid the biggest rocks, and we’ll never be sorry about that.

Shine the light in the storm.   Lighthouse leadership shines brightest when it is darkest.  When the Madeira crashed into the rocks and Fred Benson jumped onto the cliff, his light was shining bright.  He valued the team, and eight men lived because of his leadership. 

Lighthouse leadership shines brightest when it is darkest. Click To Tweet

It is our actions in those moments that reveal the truth of who we are and what we believe.  If we are to consider ourselves leaders, then our actions must fit those values, even if it means jumping ship and risking everything to climb an icy cliff to save the team.

If we act against those values, it’s like cutting the barge adrift and turning off the lighthouse.  The team will be left to the mercy of the storm, and their respect for us as leaders will sink just as rapidly as the Madeira did.

Lighthouse Leadership – The Takeaway

During that Great Lakes storm of 1905, the captain of the Edenborn floundered in the dark and destroyed his ship.  Perhaps a lighthouse would have helped him find safety.

Fred Benson wasn’t in a leadership position at all, but at the moment of greatest darkness, his actions shone like a lighthouse.  He believed teammates should watch out for each other.  He acted on that belief.  And his fellow sailors are forever indebted to his leadership.

The greater the confusion and the darker the storm, the more important it is that we have these lighthouses, that we talk about them, and that we use them to guide our decisions.  

Then, when we need them the most, like Fred Benson’s rope suddenly appearing in front of us out of the dark, we can grab on to them and pull our team to safety.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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