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You're Not Always Right

In part 4 of a series about leadership lessons learned in the tropics, Patty Vogan explains how she saved her boat from sinking and why she gave in to a flawed system.

In my last column, "Learning to Let Go," I discussed how micromanaging is the slowest way to accomplish a task. I had just had my new boat delivered to the Vava'u group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, where I was setting up a dive shop. I had to swim the little boat out to the mooring with the bow line in my mouth at 1:00 a.m.

Seven hours later, full of excitement and anxiety, I ran down to the harbor to swim out to my new boat and take her for a spin. As I rounded the corner, expecting to see the beautiful harbor and the sun shinning on my boat, I stopped in my tracks. The boat I had just named "Surface Interval" was halfway under water.

In my head, I replayed all my steps from the night before. I knew I had put in the plug. I figured that the hull had cracks in it from the ferry ride or that "they" dropped the boat loading it on the ferry, since I wasn't there to supervise. I started to jump in the water to swim out to the boat when I realized I needed help and didn't have a clue about what I was doing.

I ran in a panic down the dirt road to my only friend, Tomas, who was in charge of The Moorings Yacht Charter Company. I was out of breath as I told him what was going on. "Did you put the plugs in the boat?" he asked. "Plugs! I assumed there would only be one plug," I responded. This is another example of why you should be careful with your assumptions when entering unknown territory. Tomas handed me a bucket and told me to bail out the water and then drive the boat around the harbor until all the water came out of the boat.

It took forever, but it worked. I thought about how often I assume I know the best thing to do just because I'm the business owner. So, guess how many plugs the boat had in it. Five.

Now it was time to build the dive shop and the compressor room. First we needed to lay two cement slabs and then build the structure. I learned my assumption lesson and decided I needed a team for this project. I went to Thomas and asked his advice. He recommended someone who was staying in the islands for a year or so while traveling the world on his sailboat. He had built his sailboat and wanted some work. Thomas told me to get on the VHF radio and get a hold of him. I said thanks and walked out with my hand-held radio, figuring I was smart enough to call someone. But this time I stopped myself and decided to ask for help.

I hired the boat builder and a young Tongan man, thinking that the three of us would be the perfect team to lay two cement slabs and build the dive shop and compressor room. I found out quickly that I needed some other team players to make it work. I went into town to buy the crushed coral, rebar, cement, tools and other materials to get started. I walked up to the counter to order the material and pay for it, and they asked me, "Where's da man?" "Excuse me?" I asked. Again, the man behind the counter asked, "Where's da man? We no sell without man."

I tried to explain that I was building on the Tonga Beach Resort and that it was OK to sell to me. At this point, all the big Tongan men that worked behind the counter were staring at me. I was trying to decide whether I should plead, whine, beg or cry. He looked at me, slapped down my order and said, "No man, no sell," and walked away. I walked away, too.

I decided to add a new team member. One of the Tongans I knew sent his son with me and instructed him to say yes to everything the men at the store asked. He was a very good "man," and it all worked out in the end. As frustrating as it may be, sometimes it's better to go with the system instead of fighting it or trying to prove your point.

Two more unexpected members joined our team within the first week, and next month I'll talk about why we needed the local church and my landlord to join the team. Stay tuned for more lessons from the tropics.

Patty Vogan is Entrepreneur.com's "Leadership" columnist and owner of Victory Coaching, an executive coaching company for business and personal success, and a chairman for the largest CEO organization in the world, TEC International.

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