The Importance of Research--and a Smile

In part 2 of a series about leadership lessons learned in the tropics, Patty Vogan explains how she almost ended up in a Tongan jail.

Last month, I introduced a series about lessons I learned while starting and running a dive shop in Tonga. The lesson from the first column was that your entrepreneurial dreams are possible, even if they mean moving to a third-world country you know very little about. I also mentioned that research and perseverance must accompany your passion, a lesson that I would like to expand upon this month.

I didn't do enough research on the country itself before moving to the Kingdom of Tonga, which means I learned this particular lesson the hard way. Before moving, I had no idea that Tonga doesn't allow guns in the country. Police officers don't even carry them. As I mentioned last month, I grew up in a family of hunters and peace officers who taught their little sister to shoot. So I naturally took my gun to Tonga.

Now if you were the king of a country that didn't allow guns and someone new arrived with such a weapon, what would you do? Let's look at that question from the perspective of an entrepreneur. Say you hired someone from a different country or culture and it was their custom to always take a nap at noon. How would you handle the situation?

Well, in Tonga, they tend to go with the no tolerance approach. After my gun was discovered in my 20x20 container and I was facing being sent to jail, the owner of a local boat-building company--an Australian man who I bought my first boat from--wanted to help me. He advised me that I needed to learn how to cry on demand--and learn quickly.

My boat-builder friend took me to the chief of police and told him that I was a stupid American girl. I didn't know the law and had made a big mistake. He pleaded with the chief of police to have pity on me and not put me in jail. I took that as my cue. The crocodile tears started flowing. I kept thinking, "Are they really going to put me in jail and throw away the key?" At that point, I realized my dream of opening my shop could be over and perhaps the tears weren't really an act.

I had missed an important step in becoming an entrepreneur. Research clearly isn't just for the laboratory. When entrepreneurs get a new idea that can turn a profit or fuel their passion, moving too quickly and missing an important step in research can be very costly.

So did the tears work? Actually, no, they were still going to put me in jail. But the Australian talked them into waiting until they unloaded the container. Fortunately and unfortunately for me, I had also brought cases of wine. I had packed two bottles at a time and wrapped them tightly in brown packing paper. The "unfortunate" part of the situation was that my wrapped wine looked like tightly packed kilos of drugs. My popularity was diminishing quickly.

Here's where another lesson--and the "fortunate" part of the story--comes in: Never forget that a smile is a universal tool. A kind, honest smile speaks volumes in any language. So I smiled at the Tongan police, unwrapped the brown packages, handed each one of them a bottle of wine and said in my best broken Tongan, "Gift for you." Then I smiled again. Never underestimate the power of a smile; it kept me out of jail.

Next month, the series continues with the delivery of the boat, when you'll find out whether it stayed afloat or sunk. The lessons will be on assumptions and management effectiveness. Stay tuned and remember the words of our friend Jimmy Buffett, "If we don't laugh, we'll all go insane."

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.

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