Resilience Demands Sailboats and Captains, Not Cars and Drivers

In my second post for the Resilience Initiative Executive Series entitled, “Resilience Needs the Equilibrium of Both/And,” I wrote about the importance of creating and nurturing a Progress Culture as an essential resilience tool. This piece, the third of four for the Resilience Initiative, extends that thinking and offers a way to conceptualize what was laid out in the last piece. For me, sailing offers an apt metaphor for a progress culture, as well as for the resilience requisite to preserve and extend it.

My mother grew up sailing each weekend on Fishing Bay around a point from the far larger Chesapeake Bay of Virginia and Maryland. Years later when she tried to pass along her love for sailing to my sister and me, it was clear early on I would not be much of a sailor. At age six or seven, my contribution was to complain about being bored and do my best to avoid being hit in the head by the boom swinging across when we tacked. I liked going fast, but we rarely seemed to go fast.

In the moments when the wind faded to a breeze, then diminished to stillness, I wondered why we’d chosen floating in a hot boat rather than some other more entertaining hobby such as capturing bugs on the grassy edge of the narrow bay shoreline or fishing for sharp toothed Blues. During those dead air moments, as we sat waiting for any breeze that might help us move again, I realized that sailors never go straight toward their destination. They take advantage of what the wind gives them—moving closer to but not directly at their intended destination with each tack. In the context of progress culture, they tack back and forth from preservation to change in order to get where they want to go without ever losing sight of what should never change or denying the need at times to alter approach. In other words, preservation and change exist in a symbiotic relationship with a shared goal rather than existing in a war between right and wrong where one side or the other will win.

With decades separating me from my time at Fishing Bay, I have come to see sailing as more than simply as a pastime I never quite understood well enough to see why some people thought it was fun. Good boats and accomplished sailors, like successful institutions and the experienced leaders within them, know how to make the most of the situation, and importantly they know how to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity—a breeze stiffening off the port bow or the promise of an advantageous wind around the point. Additionally, they know how to stay on course as the wind slackens or shifts. And not less significantly, they know how to read the wind so they don’t spend too much time directly into the wind (A).

The points of sail: A. Into the wind; shaded: “no-go zone” where a craft may be “in irons”. B. Close-hauled C. Beam reach D. Broad reach E. Running

Too often we try to force strategic planning into something that pretends there is an accurate roadmap for what lies ahead for an institution—a sequence of turns along a well-delineated route guaranteed to take us where we need to go. This is dangerously misleading. To believe that we are driving on a predictable path dramatically increases our vulnerability to the unforeseen circumstances that arrive for all institutions. Such roadmap-devoted leaders and institutions look great when things are going their way, when their strategy is right on schedule, when demand is high. However, when something goes off course, or when they find themselves in a “no-go zone,” they become quickly ill-equipped to take decisive action. Sailing provides a far better way of understanding a healthy approach to strategy because it prepares us both for staying on course and for finding our way back on course when the context within which we operate changes. It gives us a way of navigating all the “points of sail.”

So, what do resilient non-profits, and for-profits do? They both preserve and they change…and again…and again. They recognize that in order to end up where they want to go strategically, they must sail. Such an approach defines institutional resilience, it sets a course for strategic execution and institutional sustainability.

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Ross Peters is a Senior Consultant for AAL: The Academy for Advancing Leadership. He focuses on Independent Schools and their national and regional associations in the areas of strategic planning, change management, board practice, and curriculum development. His extensive background in these areas also prepares him to serve in higher educational and professional educational settings as well. Prior to his role at AAL, Ross had a number of titles: Head Tennis Coach, Mountaineering Staff Member, Department Chair, Dean of Faculty, Assistant Head for Academic Affairs, Upper School Head, and Head of School. He derived his understanding of how a school should work and what leadership should look like from the classroom out, building his understanding of a school one) from the powerful relationships built with students in classrooms where high expectations and nurture are symbiotic and two) from the example of extraordinary school leaders who modeled servant leadership molded to the demanding environment of an independent school. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Ross was a thirteen-year graduate of St. Christopher’s School. From there he went to Sewanee: The University of the South (B.A., English), followed, after six years teaching at Providence Day School, with an M.Ed from the University of Georgia. While deeply appreciative of the remarkable gift of education he received at every level, his best learning has resulted from being an educator working with students whether as a classroom teacher or as a school leader. At the core of his belief in the value of an independent school is this idea: in order to create the education our students need and deserve, schools must mirror the qualities we demand of those we teach; thus, our learning curve should remain steep and our dedication to holding up the values we name as most important should be unwavering. This commitment to match the expectations we have for students in the way we think, act, work together as an institution guides his work in leadership, and it has allowed him to play a significant and lasting role in several outstanding schools. Since his eight years at Providence Day School in Charlotte, NC, he has made an impact as a teacher and administrator in a fascinating range of schools. From founding an integrated Humanities Department to establishing an Honor System at a small, hundred-year-old boarding school (Asheville School), and from reinventing the use of time to creating an urban campus in two schools ready for significant innovation (Hawken School and The Westminster Schools), Ross has had the chance to immerse himself in strategic and aligned school cultures to a degree that has allowed him to help those remarkable places move forward within the context of their mission and culture. At St. George’s Independent School, he mobilized that experience to help a younger school maintain the forward-thinking qualities that make it unique in Memphis. Ross is active in the Memphis Community and beyond. He currently serves on two Boards—the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools, and the National Association of Independent Schools. He is a former Board member of Bridges USA, which operates from the belief that “great leaders, regardless of age, must appreciate diversity, lean into courageous conversations, and build bridges across deep philosophical and physical divides.” He and his wife Katie also serve as members of the Family Partners Council at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital where their daughter, Eleanor was first diagnosed as a Type I Diabetic. Katie (Ph.D., Emory University, Religious Studies) teaches at Rhodes College. His interests include hiking, travel, photography, and mediocre guitar picking. A widely published poet, he has completed work on a collection of poetry entitled, The Flood is Not the River, and he has provided the foreword and over one hundred photographs for a book entitled, Sacred Views: St. Francis and the Sacro Monte di Orta due out in the next year from Punctum Press. You can find his thoughts on education, as well as anything else he might be thinking about, on his blog—Ross All Over the Map. A long time ago he had hair:

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