A farmer who talked to me recently about the financial challenges many farmers face got me thinking about the English proverb “Smooth seas never made a skillful sailor.” He shared his strategy that has helped him the most – to be successful and to have the confidence he has today – wasn’t the years with good prices or bumper crops, but the challenging, uncertain years. In reflection, he said that while the tough years were hard when slogging through them, he looks back now thankful for the lessons he learned.

Think about the world of sailing – a relatively solitary vocation, deeply affected by weather and a host of factors outside the captain’s control. Let’s compare five MUST DOs for great ship captains.

Set the course. Captains, like business leaders, are responsible for charting the course toward the destination. That doesn’t mean the captain shouldn’t or doesn’t take input from key advisors – but ultimately someone must be at the helm, saying: “This is where we are going, and this is how we will get there.”

Monitor the weather. Being tuned into changing conditions applies as much to watching the weather as it does watching for the winds of economic change. Great leaders know when to stay to the grindstone, but they also know it’s important to be tuned into how trends are changing around them so they can adjust the sails to take advantage of friendly ‘breezes’ and to avoid storms in their path.

Have a good crew. A confident captain with a bad crew is a recipe for disaster. The captain can’t be everywhere at once – he needs a crew that’s responsible, experienced and knows how their roles contribute to the success of the journey. For today’s farmer, their ‘crew’ may extend well beyond their family and payroll to their key advisors.

Know the ship. A captain has to know the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the ship. Without knowing every aspect of the vessel, the captain can’t know where risks or opportunities on the journey lie. On the farm, a great leader should never use the excuse “Well, I just wasn’t watching that part of the business” or “I didn’t understand how that worked.” It’s the captain’s job to know.

Check their ego. The bottom of the sea is littered with invincible captains who ignored warning signs and sailed their vessel into disaster. It’s a lesson to business – doing a ‘sail by’ when you’re the captain of the Costa Concordia may be a great display of authority – but it can end in ruinous disaster.

So, I challenge you as we tack into this year to review the seaworthiness of your ship and the readiness of your ship’s captain to take on the headwinds before you.

Wishing you a safe and productive 2014 with this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

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