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How to Make Your Leadership Seaworthy

A few years ago Sue and I embarked on one of our all-time favorite adventure trips – a three-week cruise from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to San Antonio, Chile, just west of Santiago. It was amazing for dozens of reasons, many of them unexpected on my part going into the trip.

As I noted when I wrote about the trip in Transfluence, I took hundreds of photos, listened to lectures, and took every opportunity to watch seals, whales, seabirds, and penguins. I even found the icebergs interesting.

But when I think about it, the trip was also amazing because of something that’s easy to take for granted: We didn’t sink.

There once was a time in the not-too-distant past when sailing in or around the southern tip of South America was one of the most dangerous nautical quests anyone could go on. Perhaps most famously, the Endurance, captained by Ernest Shackleton, was crushed by the ice in 1915, sank in the Weddell Sea, and wasn’t seen again until 2022. The crew’s survival story is a classic illustration of crisis leadership.

Two aspects of our trip, however, left us virtually worry free, and both can set us up for smoother sailing as leaders if we don’t take them for granted.

We had a good ship.

Modern ships are incredibly well-designed and constructed, but we often forget that it’s the parts we don’t see that matter most – the parts that are under the water. You can have a fancy deck that shines like freshly polished brass, but that won’t keep you afloat if the hull isn’t well-constructed and well-maintained.

Allie Brosh, who wrote about dealing with depression in her clever and insightful blog Hyperbole and a Half, once said the best advice anyone ever gave her was to “be an unsinkable ship” because “making yourself seaworthy is easier than trying to control the sea.”

It’s tempting to rush into each day with an attack-the-to-do-list mentality because results matter. And we naturally want to control what’s around us to get results. But we can’t control the seas. And we won’t get the results we want if we don’t take care of our hull – the mental, physical, and spiritual things in our life that other people don’t see because they are below the surface.

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We had a good crew.

Ships don’t sail themselves. This was obvious when sailors had to do things like raise and lower sails, but the crews on modern ships can operate inconspicuously. While you see them around and about, you hardly know the details of what they are doing to navigate you and the other passengers safely through the waters. But where would you be without them?

We also need strong and capable leaders in our lives, as well as skilled people who complement us by filling the gaps where we are weak. Few things are more important to successful leadership than surrounding ourselves with talent.

Cold winds, ice, changing ocean currents, and rising sea levels are among the many factors that shape and reshape the environment in the waters of Antarctica. Fortunately, Sue and I sailed in fair weather on most of our trip, but we sailed with confidence that the ship and crew were prepared for whatever we might face.

As a leader, that’s our challenge: Prepare our ship and surround ourselves with the right crew. Then we can move out with confidence and enjoy the adventure, come what may.


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