Sailing and Leading

There is probably no more obnoxious class of citizen, taken end for end, than the returning vacationist. ~Robert Benchley

That said, I had a simply marvelous vacation, resplendent with hiking, rafting, and horseback riding in the Tetons, then a week of blissful hard work aboard the 40’ Island Sun, prowling the Abacos in the northeastern Bahamas. Thanks to Alan, my captain, from his highly inept, yet hard working first mate!

While the sailing metaphors are overused to illustrate lessons about leadership—it was surprising to me how potent I found the experience, especially just coming off the Community Arts Education Leadership Institute a few weeks before. CAELI was a five-day immersion into the quandaries and questions of leadership with 25 highly committed individuals from arts education organizations from across the US.

Our purpose with CAELI, and with all we do here at Partners in Performance is to help leaders build adaptive, resilient, mission-driven organizations. It is here that I found the sailing parallels so helpful. To remain afloat and arrive anywhere near the original destination, the sailor must remain attentive to the three forces that are continually acting on her craft, and her course…the current, the wind, and the tide. While the Gulfstream may dominate, the Atlantic has 32 surface currents. While there are prevailing winds—easterlies for the Abacos, gusts appear out of no place, either sporadic or sustained, sometimes appearing as ugly squalls accompanied by a downpour. In leading organizations, we deal with forces just as powerful and just as dynamic…shifting financial realities, changing demographics, fickle funders, etc.

In my work, I find most organizations and their leadership are clear about vision and knows what kind of world they want to create, where they want to take the organization. And they are resilient enough to remain committed to the vision no matter what. This is one of the real under-recognized assets of our field. Highly visionary leaders!

Most of these leaders also know how they would like to get there, and therein lies the problem. We’ve trained leaders to decide the steps required to get there, then to remain committed to what the plan calls for (Plan the work, work the plan.). All in spite of the ever-changing reality, the continuous shape shifting.

The wise sailor never remains committed to a course in spite of the changing winds, currents, or tides; but adjusts the course in line with those changing forces. Tacking is not just a way of coping, but a way of assuring progress is made toward the destination.

We must unlearn our reliance on strategic planning, predicting what will happen and setting the course; and learn, and help our leaders learn that changing the course, continually revising the strategy, perpetually reinventing and always innovating are the essential tools of adaptive leadership.

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2 thoughts on “Sailing and Leading

  1. John,
    Another major challenge to adapting a vision to meet the changing times is that the same captain is always at the wheel. We must involve far more stakeholders, especially now that the younger generation is beginning to demand a say in what direction their chosen ship sails. If not, they are likely to jump ship.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

    • John August 27, 2010 at 11:01 am Reply

      Indeed, and any metaphor only goes so far. The work of organizational leadership is fundamentally about relationships that leaders form, or fail to form with internal and external stakeholders. Whether or not such individuals or groups ‘demand’ a say, the leaders are well advised to seek out their views and the wisdom that informs them. To fail to do so means sailing toward great peril.

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