7 Things I’d Tell Anyone Unexpectedly Captaining the Whole Ship

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In April last year, I posted a piece about what it was like being new to senior leadership. While I didn’t know it at the time, the analogy of the ship I used in that post has come to signify something deeply important as I have journeyed through a period of transition and of significant change in my world of work. It’s been a bit like sailing in a storm. The ship’s not yet at the shore but I can see land on the horizon. So here, I write about 7 things I’d tell anyone who unexpectedly finds themselves captaining the whole ship!

Take Your Sea Sick Tablets – the non drowsy kind…

Sometimes unexpected change can be traumatic for a community. Because communities are made up of people and because people are enormously feeling and caring, unexpected change can bring anxiety, anger, fear, uncertainty and distress. People express these genuine emotions in a range of ways and sometimes, in their confusion or hurt, they can be a bit mean. The adage, ‘hurt people hurt people’ is pretty accurate.

Here’s the thing; if you take it personally, it will make you sick. So don’t. Know that sudden change may bring rough seas and be prepared. You may find yourself pushed from pillar to post and back again. There are sure to be times when you’re not sure which way is up. It’s unpleasant but it will pass.

Batten Down the Hatches

Any good captain sees the storm building and commands the crew to prepare. This is not usually done with any degree of double mindedness. It involves strong, clear and specific directions. Faffing about will only make people more anxious. The message is that we’re well prepared. We know how to do this. We know our jobs. We trust. We have each other’s back. We’re committed to everyone’s success.

Don’t be surprised or alarmed by the first wave that crashes over the deck. It was inevitable. Brace yourself and follow your plan with conviction.

Empower Your Crew

Any captain who tries to navigate his or her way through a storm alone is an idiot. Any captain who doesn’t know the skill set and the potential of his or her crew is ignorant. Any captain who fails to release others to do what they do best is incompetent.

Your crew have skill sets. Create opportunities for those skills to be exercised. If you try to do it yourself, you will end up exhausted and your team will feel redundant.

One of the greatest joys for me in these past 12 months has been to give permission to those who lead with me. They have such clever ideas. I dare not limit them. Nor should you.

Keep Your Eyes Above the Waves

When your community is in distress, the waves appear to overwhelm. In truth, waves come and go. They do not last forever.

I grew up on a farm and in our family, we used to say, “If you look up, you don’t notice the pooh on your shoes!”. The same applies to waves. Look up. Look up. Look up!

I have an enduring memory on Wamberal Beach (NSW) growing up in the early 80’s. There was a storm. My sister & I stood in the surf holding hands as the water was sucked from beneath our feet. The wave looming above us appeared huge and overwhelming. We were frightened. We looked each other in the eye, determined to never let go, held our breath, then looked to the horizon. The wave crashed down. We tumbled. Our faces got smashed in the sand. Our arms and legs were akimbo… but we survived. We came out the back of the wave.

You will too!

There is no guarantee you won’t get knocked about but look to the horizon. Looking at the height and power of the waves will only terrify you. Keep your eyes above them.

Know That Storms End

No storm lasts forever. A storm can be hard to endure but in truth, it will pass. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Eventually your ship will pop out the back end of the storm and you will find yourself staring about in wild eyed wonder at the stillness of the water, the calm of the breeze and the colour of the horizon – but pay attention. You may not know whether it is a sunset or a sunrise that you see. Take the time to discern the difference.

Anticipate the Squalls

When I  described my year to a friend, he encouraged me to think of it in terms of earthquakes and aftershocks – the main event followed by smaller and less devastating events. Storms still sit with me and the image I have of a boat and waves is so strong, I can’t let it go. Rather than aftershocks, I think of squalls – sudden, violent, high pitched whiney things that have little strength but the power to scare those who listen to the noise.

Don’t listen. Look up, look out, point to the shore. Everyone on board needs this.

Remember it’s your job to bring the ship to shore

In this season, there is little room for the pity party or a victim mentality. Sorry, but it’s true. If you are a leader, too many people are depending upon you to bring the ship safely to shore – here and now, there is no time for the ‘woe is me’. Certainly, you will need to pay attention to your physical, spiritual and mental health – no question – but don’t indulge the describing or reliving the storm you have encountered. Once the ship makes it to shore and you have disembarked, there will be plenty of time for reflection. Raul Armesto says, The world isn’t interested in the storms you encountered, but whether or not you brought in the ship.

Personally, people’s journeys and the storms they face do interest me – I am overwhelmed with compassion for them – but I understand his point. There’s an end goal and it’s the safety of all on board. When that is what drives you, you will find energy and drive as you have never known. Leaders all, bring your ship to the shore and when all have disembarked, raise your glass to the horizon and declare, salut!

2 thoughts on “7 Things I’d Tell Anyone Unexpectedly Captaining the Whole Ship”

  1. Well said Melanie. As someone who has been in leadership for a bit longer and not really knowing the full circumstances of your entry to leadership, I trust that as you go forward the storm analogy will be an occasional one for your leadership experiences rather than the main one. Most of the time, leadership is a joy and a privilege and not necessarily loaded with dangers and troubles. May you experience the best of leadership as you move forward.

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