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Learning to Let Go

In part 3 of a series about leadership lessons learned in the tropics, Patty Vogan discusses how micromanaging locals only slowed things down.

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Last month, I addressed the importance of conducting thorough research before opening a business and how the lack of it almost landed this entrepreneur in a tropical jail. I also discussed how a smile is a universal gesture that we sometimes overlook. I learned many other lessons from running a business in Tonga; this month's lessons focus on assumptions and effective management.

After narrowly escaping jail, I was ready to clear customs in the main island of Nuku'alofa and repack my 20x20 container into smaller cartons before loading them and my new boat onto the inner-island ferry. From there, it would travel to the Vava'u group of islands--my soon-to-be new home.

The inner-island ferry named the "O'lavaha" was affectionately known by the locals as "the floating coffin," which didn't exactly inspire confidence. I planned to travel on the ferry along with my boat, so that I could look after it. But my friend Jeff, the boat builder from Australia, guided me in a different direction.

He suggested I fly instead. The trip was either a 75-minute flight or a two-day boat ride with pigs, chickens, goats and sick locals. Most people threw up because of the rough seas. The lesson here: Always be willing to listen to a new idea. That was one I didn't need to learn the hard way.

Watching everything I owned, including my new boat, go out to sea on something called the floating coffin was a bit unnerving. For the next two days, I waited with anxiety.

The sun was setting as the O'lavaha rounded the mountain and started up the channel to the harbor where I was standing. As the ferry slowly made its way up the channel, I noticed it was leaning to right. I began worrying it was about to sink before my eyes. But then I realized that the Tongans on the boat were leaning over the rails on the right side of the ferry, waving to the people in the village.

My fears were getting in the way of my focus and my outlook was becoming more negative by the minute. When I start thinking negatively, my management style becomes very controlling and inefficient.

As they were unloading the ferry, I stood at the dock and watched as they put straps on my boat before lifting it with a crane. I assumed this small group of islands rarely had boats delivered--if ever--and decided I needed to tell the locals how to do it. After all, I could tell they were doing it all wrong. I boarded the ferry in a huff and tried my hardest to micromanage the project. After speaking my broken Tongan, acting important and making demands, I got nowhere, except behind schedule.

Have you ever hired someone to do a job and then proceeded to tell them how to do it? It's definitely not the most efficient way to manage a situation. I was operating on my assumptions and not taking time to rationally analyze the situation. That was another valuable lesson--in this case, learned the hard way.

After the Tongan men successfully got the boat off the ferry--without my help--I was relieved, as well as a bit embarrassed by my actions. I proudly backed my new boat and trailer down the boat ramp, only to have the trailer fall off the hitch. I watched as the boat began skidding down the ramp toward the sea. I immediately assumed the men didn't hook up the trailer properly. Fortunately, the boat stopped before crashing into the ocean.

I backed the truck down and reattached the trailer. Part way up the ramp, the trailer fell off again. I had purchased my truck in America and had it shipped over in the 20x20 container. The trailer and boat were from New Zealand. Who would have thought the trailer and the truck hitch were not compatible? My assumptions had gotten me in trouble once again.

The normal way of launching a boat wasn't going to work. And I was beginning to realize that my management style wasn't proving to be effective or efficient. Now the tide was too low to launch.

However, Thomas, the manager of the Moorings Yacht Charter Company, understood how to manage people in Tonga. He organized six very big local men to come back at midnight to help me launch the boat. "Are you nuts," I asked. "What makes you think they are going to come back at midnight to help me? How much money did you offer them?" Thomas smiled and said, "You have a lot to learn, my dear. I told them you would give each one of them a package of cookies. They don't want your money; they'll do it out of the kindness of their heart and their stomach."

Midnight came and almost went. They finally arrived and launched the boat with their bodies and ropes. I put the bow line in my mouth and swam my new boat out to a mooring and tied it off, and we both slept peacefully through the night. The Tongans happily went home with cookies in hand.

Next month, I'll continue with the morning adventure of the sunken boat and some team-building lessons.

Patty Vogan is'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.