“ Any fool can carry on, but only the wise man knows how to shorten sail. ”
— Joseph Conrad, a Polish-born English novelist, who left his native Poland at a young age to avoid conscription into the Russian Army, and went on to become a Master Mariner for the British Navy… that is, before events led him to writing.
This quote is packed with wisdom.
When sailing, you obviously need sails. When you open up them up, you can catch the wind …and begin to fly! Exhilarating!
In a storm, however, these same sails can become a captain’s worst nightmare if not shortened before the winds hit.
The time in-between - most of the trip and how the ship is managed - is the difference between wise and foolish; safe and disaster; life and death.
In life, work and on the water, storms pop up all the time. But the question is are we in tune with them brewing, or are we taken off guard each time?
If as a leader your approach is smoke and mirrors, focused only on the stuff you want to hear, risk-adverse, or, ironically, even overly process oriented, no doubt you’ll find yourself in having to shorten the sails during the chaotic winds (damaging Tweets, repetitive news coverage, Google searches)…
You’ll soon learn in sudden-death mode you should’ve, could’ve, would’ve.
Being a good captain (aka leader) means being focused and attuned beyond having knowledge. It also requires intuition and always remaining humble.
(Advice: NEVER get on the seas with an arrogant, know-it-all captain. Experienced, yes. Capable, yes. Good teacher, yes. To the point and decisive (almost no fun at times), yes, yes, yes.)
In fact, every good captain I have ever met is constantly (docked or not) preparing their boat, caring for their equipment, and calculating next moves. They do it themselves crew or not.
And, if you pay attention to captains, you’ll see they are ALWAYS observing. They never stop watching the water, horizon, skies, or direction of the wind. There is also a constant ear attuned to weather reports and frequent study of sonar screens.
Good captains (leaders) serve as a tool who can interpret the signs and provide strategic direction to their crew based on their goals - primarily arriving safely at their destination. Experience plays a huge role, as does their constant respect of nature.
Whether in sailing, business, or life, it’s important to keep your eyes wide open, keep an open mind, and pay attention. Winds shift sometime abruptly but mostly the signs are there in advance.
Listen. Prepare in advance for every potential crisis. Know your ship inside and out. Tighten and loosen based on the landscape (economics, competitive forces, etc.) And constantly listen to your crew’s feedback to see “full circle.”
See things for yourself …not just read it in a report or an update in a meeting. Trust but verify because rumors are a form of sabotage. Information filtering is constant around leaders because ill intention or not, people want favor.
(By the way, embrace those who are willing to speak up and say the hard things to you.)
Be curious, not controlling… and ultimately make your assets and the winds work together in your favor.