If you’ve ever been in a boat on choppy water, you know that the path from Point A to Point B is rarely a straight one. It’s a matter of cutting right or left, hitting the crest of the wave just right, and adjusting your speed based on the conditions. Likewise, if you’re trying to stand up in that boat, your best chance for staying upright is to have your eyes forward, your feet firmly planted and your knees bent so you can easily shift position without losing your balance.
You see where I’m going here, right? If we know our organizations are like the boat, then why do we get so mired in charting a specific detailed path (disregarding that there may be a thousand variables that can impact that path) while remaining fuzzy on the final destination? And if we, as leaders in our organization, are the one trying to stand up in this boat, why do so many of us get distracted by the scenery, have our feet cock-eyed and our knees locked — and then are surprised when we lose our balance?
The solution is really quite simple . . . which is entirely different from saying it is easy.
1) Plant your feet on your mission, vision and values. No matter which way the boat rocks, if your actions are rooted in these you should be able to maintain your footing. Of course, how is your staff going to know if you’re living out the organizational values if they don’t know what they are? It is your job as the leader of the organization to make sure they do. Be a broken record. People get absorbed in the day to day and forget. I have found chocolate to be a good motivator (as in, I have chocolate for the first person who can tell me our five agency values) as are gift cards. You know, $5 is a pretty good investment to reinforce the foundation on which your organization should be functioning. You can make it fun, but when you talk about it, repeatedly, it also makes it important.
2) Keep your eyes on your strategic goals. There is more noise to distract us today than ever before (oh wow, look at that big boat . . . I wonder what they’re building over there on the shoreline . . . this looks like a nice quiet cove . . . you get the picture). And when that noise comes with grant or contract funds attached, it can be awfully tempting take your eyes off the destination and drift on over for a look. The risk is, you drift so far off course that you forget what you were navigating toward in the first place. Be aware of your surroundings, yes; make proactive course corrections, absolutely; being distracted by that shiny thing in the water . . . if you’re easily distracted, your staff will be too.
3) Bend your knees! There’s a reason so many athletes have had this drilled into them. You are more nimble when your knees are bent. You can shift your weight and move in whatever offensive or defensive direction you need to accommodate changing variables. Back on our boat we refer to this a having your sea legs. Sea legs for the leader of an organization means being clear on the “what” but flexible on the “how” — as in here is the goal we need to reach at the end of this set time period, now, find the most efficient, effective way to get there (which may be an entirely different way than the leader was thinking . . . but heaven help us if we have all the good ideas!). This funding source dried up, or the demands related to the funding are becoming unmanageable . . . okay . . . we still need to reach our destination, now how else can we get there. If your knees are locked on one particular way of doing things, you just got knocked over. If your knees are bent, necessity may force you to find an even better way of doing things. Bend your knees!
That’s it. If you’re looking for smooth sailing, you’re in the wrong business. And in today’s environment, organizations are desperate for leaders to stand up, even (and especially) in the choppiest of water, and keep the focus on the destination.