There is not much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. That line from Graham Green’s Wind in the Willows has captured an essence of the joy of boat owning. The line leaves aside though the notion that what happens in a boat may not be important. You’ll see that people believe everything that happens in a boat is important and they’re almost born to be that way. It’s very old.
Boats, in fact, are among the oldest things we’ve found that men have built. It’s as if recognition that most of our world is water and we are without gills was identified very early in our history. Boats are our way of dealing with that. Men have been putting to sea to mess about, mess with other men and make messes of distant places for almost 60,000 years. Every major city of our agrarian (landed) development is located on or near a navigable waterway. Why is a question for a whole other time, but it’s interesting to keep that idea in mind as we go farther.
I’m a business coach, a leadership developer, someone with a keen interest in what helps people get things done and learning why they value what they value. I’m also a boat owner, Captain of a US Sailing Vessel. What I’ve learned from both is that people aboard a boat have a tacit (and tactile) understanding of leadership. It is almost instinctual, not something that requires much cultivation or cajoling to uncover.
Is it the compelling realization that we are in a small space surrounded by inhospitable environs? Is it the closeness of the people, from whom you’ve no easy escape while underway (in contrast to the united isolation you and your boat mates have from the rest of the world (we’re all in the same boat), or something else?
Here we’ll seek to learn why lessons of leadership are so easily learned embarked on a journey of some time. First, there is the cross-cultural historic notion of a ship having a single leader, its master. All cultures that recognize vessels at all also recognize this fundamental concept of there being a leader. While there have been many experiments, successes and failures in landed civilization, only one method, learned long ago, keeps those enclosed in a vessel upon the waters safe. All ships have a single master: one leader.
Further, this same universal truism extends to the recognition that a ship, in motion without a course, is in distress. Even being anchored, restrained from any progress, is more desirable than being adrift without a clear course intended. So a universal knowledge that all ships in good stead have a leader and a course clear of obstacles are the first leadership assumptions in the role of an intrepid sea captain. All ships have a course that is safe to make way.
As the vessel (and the enterprise) becomes too big for the master to implement his vision, the course to be steered and safely made, teamwork becomes the next tenet of leadership that becomes obvious and universal in acceptance. All must know their role and perform it to make way down that course, and all must know it.
A chart is the seagoing equivalent of the business plan; a log is the “financials” a statement of where either a ship or business is, on its planned path. Each day, a navigation fix is taken to assess where the ship is, if it is on course to make its planned path. So too, an effective enterprise measures constantly and is able to make course corrections.
Together, the organization’s leadership and I navigate the business challenges and opportunities. I’m no expert in your ship, or your business, I know though, how to help you use your mastery of your ship to ensure its safe passage and docking in the ever changing environment of the harbor.
As a coach I meet with your team, your executive leadership and the stakeholders that developed and dictate your strategy or your chart to your destination. This destination for most businesses is a cohort of fanatically loyal and evangelical customers. Your chart identifies the obstacles, your route around them and, upon this chart; you track your progress just as the shipboard officer of the watch annotates a real chart with the progress of the ship. In these annotations, accountability for current, wind and other unanticipated effects upon the course is calculated and reckoned into a deduced path to ensure safe arrival, on time at the destination.
Similarly your people need to know your strategy but also have the awareness of the unanticipated effects of today’s business climate and how to deduce the way to steer your business to compensate for these effects. Identifying the effects and obstacles to your strategy and having the skills, knowledge and attitude to overcome them is what the coach does for your people. Each of them is, in their own way, a contributor to the speed of advance of your business, its course and speed. Each can help or hinder its progress. As a coach I help you and your people identify the metrics for success and ensure only those are sought and captured.
Lastly, even good people with a good strategy can’t make the ship go with a bent shaft, weak engine or torn sails. Getting a ship from point A to point B is a process, actually a lot of them. Each of your business processes has to contribute, as effectively, quickly, flexibly and efficiently as it can be to ensure your good people, with your good strategy, arrive at the goals you’ve set to achieve the desired results you seek. Like a far away and unseen shore, your rewards are out there. Your course is clear, your sailors able bodied, your vessel is ship shape and Bristol fashion and you will get there. I’m along for the ride to make sure.
I wish you fair winds and following seas.