Why it Takes Humility to be a Sailor and a Leader

under sail
It took us almost four weeks to cross the Tasman Sea through the “roaring forties” – the strong winds found between the latitudes of 40 and 50 degrees- on our 111 foot schooner to New Zealand. We had rationed water, food and fuel as we battled headwinds ever since leaving Australia; winds were coming directly at us and forcing us to chart a zigzag course to our destination.

There were moments of angst, of confusion, of boredom and of impatience but what transpired over those four weeks until we made it safely into a little harbor on New Zealand’s North Island was a renewed sense of humility and of community that meant putting others – “the good of the ship” – before our own interests.

Decades ago, Peter Drucker wrote:

“No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”

And that’s precisely what our sailing expedition taught us: that ordinary people led by ordinary people in a mission that inspires action, collaboration and problem solving is the key to success when faced with adversity.

Organizations face adversity every single day. Managers and leaders have to perform small miracles in order to overcome challenges, solve problems or deliver the results they think their shareholders want. When managers are good at this, they are compensated accordingly and the circle may be perpetuated as more “wins” bring greater prestige, honor and reward. It’s positive reinforcement at its best.

Is there a place for humility in leadership today? And can humility and prestige co-exist within a leader?

Humility is only a weakness in a system that values things like status over substance, personality over character, or performance over depth. Today, we have the option of moving away from the “either” “or” scenario to embrace humility – serving others – as well as prestige and reward. Jonathan Sacks wrote:

What a glorious revelation humility is of the human spirit … True humility is one of the most life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing or underestimating yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals an openness to life’s grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it … False humility is the pretense that one is small. True humility is the consciousness of standing in the presence of greatness.

When we were four weeks at sea – we were standing in the presence of the power and greatness of the ocean. But there’s no need to enter into survival mode to experience greatness. Greatness can be achieved through humility by simply avoiding putting yourself before others and leading ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

EMC
Photo source: dreshetnikov, via thenowbook on Tumblr

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3 thoughts on “Why it Takes Humility to be a Sailor and a Leader

  1. leahrclark says:

    fantastic post!

  2. Jenno says:

    Jenno loves this photo and brings back memories of our trip – xox

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