the old boss and the sea
By tim brown in Great Work and Leadership
One of my favorite Hemingway novels is The Old Man and the Sea. An old, seasoned fisherman seeks to impart his wisdom and knowledge of fishing to a young boy by taking him to fight the great marlins of the Atlantic. I have often thought on the striking similarities between captaining a ship and managing a business on the waves of industry. As I have gotten older, I too have felt the urgency of imparting the lessons I’ve learned to the rising generation. If I can be forgiven for all the voyaging references, I’d like to share a few of those.
You’re important, for a reason
It’s important for you to know you’re important, but not because you’re the president or the CEO of a business. You’re also not important because you’re smarter, more talented or do more work than those that paddle below deck (though any or all of those things could very well be true). You’re important because what you do has the greatest impact on the crew as a whole. Your actions will affect them. That’s why they aim to please you. Take responsibility for them and realize that you have a significant impact on their lives. But don’t overdo it.
Though it may sometimes feel otherwise, you are not the powerhouse. So don’t try to be. Sticking your nose into everything is a sure way to either upset your employees or condition them to become complacent (when you get to heaven, ask Steve Jobs about that one). When employees know or think you’ll change what they’ve done, their incentive to try harder the next time diminishes. Rather, help people do the job themselves. This is the harder task, but if done right, will be a game changer in the long run.
Know your role
Great ships turn on small rudders. The most important thing you can learn is how to operate that rudder. It requires great skill and percussion. Even the slightest jerk can significantly alter courses. How often do we see professional sports teams flounder or completely turn their franchises around with the simple change of a head coach? That’s because leadership is a difference maker. I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. When sales are down, the natural response is to start from the bottom and begin whipping the crew all the way to the top. Always start from the top first. If bad decisions are being made at an executive level, those at the bottom will know it. It’s hard to inspire the crew to paddle harder when you’re steering is all over the place. Manage the rudder first and then see to the crew.
No Senior Patrol Leaders
Don’t misunderstand me. While steering the ship is indeed your primary objective, what that does not mean is barking orders to everyone and then going off to an extended lunch. I’ve been to enough scout camps to know just how many people think that leadership means sitting on a throne and waving the royal scepter. That’s a sure way to get yourself locked in outhouse in the middle of the Sierra Buttes (not that I’ve ever been guilty of that). Work hard if you expect to see that in your employees. Sometimes, even the appearance of administrative complacence can be damning.
The task of leading is hard (assuming you’re doing it right), but it is different. Some of your employees may not see the strain that comes leading, especially if they’ve never held such positions themselves. That’s why communication is key. Gain the trust of your employees and it will be easier to move the ship forward.