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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