Lee Rosbach whittles down good leadership to being a person of high honor and integrity. Without that, he says, you're sunk.
In both appearance and disposition, Bravo TV star Lee Rosbach is the perfect personification of a yacht captain: white hair and nearly trimmed beard; a former boxer who is fit and athletic even at 72; and a gruff, no-nonsense demeanor, with the salty mouth to back it up.
This is a helmsman, after all, with chapters in his 2018 memoir titled “There is no dumbass vaccine,” and “You have one shot at integrity.” Another chapter is called “What’s the difference between a God and a captain? God doesn’t think he’s a captain.”
A Saginaw, Michigan native, Rosbach didn’t start his working life on the sea (he was welder, a bartender and a short order cook, among other roles, first.) But he’s been a boat captain long enough and well enough to land a gig on the hit reality TV show “Below Deck”on Bravo. “Below Deck,” which follows the lives of a crew catering to well-heeled guests aboard a superyacht, debuted in 2013 and Rosbach remains on the show, now in its ninth season. Rosbach has had his captain’s license for 37 years.
Rosbach, who lived in Fort Myers Beach in his 20s and now lives in Fort Lauderdale, visited the west coast of Florida in late September for some public appearances. The events, coming, it turns out, three days before Hurricane Ian, were held at the Venice Public Library and the Venice Yacht Club.
With the colorful career and life-well-lived Rosbach has had, he’s bound to have a starboard sized collection of leadership lessons. To that end, on a Zoom interview prior to his Venice appearances, two leadership themes emerged: full and constant transparency on everything going on in an organization is a must-do to be a good leader, he says. And skills and abilities in leadership, much like a chapter in his book, take a back seat to leading with integrity.
On both points, while Rosbach doesn’t dispute he sometimes comes off harsh on the TV show, he says his dry candor isn’t just for show. “Everything I do,” he says, “I try to be fair and equitable.”
'You learn a lot when you figure out there’s a different way to do things. When you make a mistake you always have to ask yourself, ‘what could I have done better?’ Lee Rosbach
Some other leadership nuggets from Rosbach include:
• Peer ahead: At one his early career stops, captaining a yacht based on Turks and Caicos, Rosbach recalls he caught an employee stealing money. So he fired him. Turns out there’s a law in Turks and Caicos that requires business owners to keep paying employees for 90 days after they are fired. “I was paying him not to work and paying another guy to work his job,” Rosbach says. “So that’s how I learned about hiring the best people.”
“You learn a lot when you figure out there’s a different way to do things,” he adds. “When you make a mistake you always have to ask yourself, ‘what could I have done better?’
• Steer with purpose: When you hire new people, Rosbach suggests having “serious conversations with them to try and figure out what pushes them, what motivates them to want to do their best for you and what you need to do to enhance that.” He says the three motivations workers tend to have on his yacht charters are money, fear and desire.
Not surprisingly, employees with a desire to be the best, he says, are the ones who will usually be your top performers. “Other people you have to motivate through fear,” he says. “Some people don’t understand there are consequences for what you do.”
• Deep end: Rosbach says one of the biggest mistakes he’s seen other leaders make, especially fellow captains, is blocking the success of crewmates. Rosbach has trained multiple deckhands and stewards who have gone on to captain ships. “When people ask me, ‘are you worried they’re going to leave you and go work somewhere else, I say ‘well, that’s what I want them to do,” Rosbach says. “That should give you a sense of pride. If your team is doing well, they make you look like a stud.”
• Team viewer: Rosbach unabashedly says he has one hiring method. “I hire strictly on merit,” he says. “I don’t care what color you are or what nationality you are or who you have sex with. I hire on merit and I fire on lack of merit. It’s very simple: work hard or get fired.”
• Call it: When Rosbach has to make a tough decision, on the waters or with personnel, he keeps at the forefront of his mind his above-all-else responsibility for people’s safety. He will seek input from others, but also realizes people look to him to make tough calls. “This is not a democracy,” he says. “No one gets a vote. There’s no one higher than a captain. Period. If I make a mistake, I live with it and I die with it.”
• Calm seas: Rosbach has a rather easy-going approach to how he handles dicey situations between him and others on a boat, when people, working 12-hour days and living in confined spaces, get testy. “When somebody pushes your buttons and pisses you off,” he says, “you have to step back and, if possible, sleep on it. Say to yourself ‘I’m not going to say anything now.’ You can’t just go with your knee-jerk reaction because somebody pushes your buttons.”
• High breeze: In conflict resolution, Rosbach says his first move is to listen more and talk less — which doesn’t come naturally. “You have to be willing to shut up and listen,” he says. “You have to be willing to hear people’s reality or at least people’s version of their perceived reality.”
• Trust and verify: Rosbach says every leader should have one or two go-to people he or she can hit up for advice and counsel. Outside his wife, Mary Anne, Rosbach says his go-to confidante is Jim Dunn, an executive with JM Lexus in Pompano Beach. The pair have been close friends for decades, Rosbach says. “You have to get it from someone who will tell you the truth,” he says, “not just blow smoke up your ass.”