Navigating Change: Lessons Learned from Sailing

By José Morales, MBA, MS, PCC.

When a sailboat tacks or jibes — meaning it changes direction relative to the wind — drag is increased and often speed is lost. Tack too late and you could cause a collision, lose the race or worse, run aground. Jibe without a plan and you may cause injury to crew and damage to gear.

It takes teamwork, timing, and practice to minimize wasted energy, chart the right course, turn safely and regain or even increase speed. Now, try doing this in rough weather, at night, in fog or heavy seas and the risks get dramatically higher. Leading through change is similar to turning a sailboat in under less-than-ideal conditions, and it’s often what happens right after the wheel is turned that dictates ultimate success or failure.  

Just like a sailboat will slow down as the sails lose pressure, the introduction of a change on a team or organization creates disruptive forces. Change can cause a team or organization to lose steam and slow performance. Just like in sailing, it takes planning, coordination, and good leadership to quickly overcome the loss of momentum and performance that I call “the dip.”

Behavioral scientists (Satir, Kubler-Ross, etc) have shown that change, either intentionally introduced or externally driven, creates fear, chaos, resistance and uncertainty in ways that drag down performance across multiple levels — individual, team, organization, even national and global. They also found that the longer a leader waits to set and communicate a course, the deeper and wider the dip grows and the longer performance suffers.

Many of my clients find themselves, their teams, and their organizations in the dip. They are working hard to chart a new course, get aligned, and build speed after significant disruptions.  It’s hard work with few easy answers.

How do leaders, and sailing captains, minimize the dip and more quickly drive performance to higher levels? Before (if possible) and (especially) during the chaos of change and the inevitable dip, they focus attention in these three ways:

  • Pick up the bull horn. The most important leadership move during turbulent change — and when captaining a sailboat — is communicating a clear sense of direction. Communicate the plan and the direction you need the team to go. Communicate a lot more than you think is warranted. Don’t assume they all get it; ask and check-in with them. Sailing crews are often trained to repeat back the captain’s orders to verify understanding. This ensures that the guidance and direction was received as intended. 
  • Get all hands on deck. Enable the widest possible participation, discussion, and inclusion. Information and involvement reduces fear, generates motivation, and improves unity of effort. Any crew member hanging out below deck is excess weight that increases drag.
  • Let the crew do the work. Leaders must take time and space for perspective in order to both adapt the plan and maintain a wider view of the action. Sailing captains typically position themselves to maintain a full view of all activity on deck. This allows them to better provide the right support, direction, and encouragement where and when needed. It’s really hard to see if you’re moving in the right direction when you are head down and working the lines alongside the crew.
  • The best leaders are looking farther ahead, noting the winds and currents, and clarifying their vision and direction so that their teams successfully navigate the storm. Look up. Where’s your bow pointing?

To learn more about leadership, navigating change, and directing high performing teams, contact José, for a consultation.