Small Boat Leadership [Fleming]

A short 3.5 mins video by Andy Fleming, CEO of The Development Edge

Small Boat Leadership

For the more textually inclined, full transcript below: 

What makes for good leadership? That’s a question that’s in the air right now, and rightly so. I’ve got some thoughts that have been running through my mind lately, that I’d like to share. There are more nuanced ways to talk about this, but this is not the time for nuance. I think the kind of leader that you are or that I am has everything to do with the way we envision the ship or the vessel that we’re leading. And we might not have thought of this until now, but it is time, right now, that we do.

Let’s start with the word itself, leader-ship. There’s “leader” and there’s “ship”. In my view, the leader dimension has two elements: direction and connection. However he or she may come to it, a good leader offers guidance or direction for some kind of group journey. He or she points the way forward. “Let’s go this way! This would be a good way to go.” Then, there’s the connection part. A leader acts towards others and encourages people to act towards each other in a way he or she believes would make their journey go better. So while we’re going — let’s relate to each other a certain way, let’s connect with each other a certain way. Our journey will go better if we do, and I’m going to do my best to demonstrate that in my behavior. So that’s the “leader” side of leadership. it’s about direction and connection. 

But what about the “ship” side of leadership? This is where it gets really interesting to me. To exercise leadership suggests that someone gives direction, etc. aboard some kind of ship, some kind of vessel. They are the leader of a ship. And when I think “ship”, I think of some kind of water-borne vessel, don’t you? You know, a ship. 

Do we envision ourselves as leading a kind of cruise ship, where some people on board, the more privileged ones, can pretty much do whatever they want, whenever they want to do it? And the others are there mainly to serve them. Or do we envision our vessel as more like a small boat? A small boat where each person’s actions directly affect the others on the boat. And also impacts the stability and the seaworthiness of the boat itself. 

I’ll leave it to your imagination to extend this metaphor further. And to apply it in some way if you think it’s useful. But this distinction between leadership according to the principles of a cruise line, say the Titanic, perhaps. And leadership according to the principles of a smaller boat, seems relevant to me. And I invite you to consider what makes more sense now. What fits better with the reality of the world as we’re experiencing and seeing it. Perhaps, with fresh eyes, right now. 


Setting aside the irksome word-play (leader-ship) and my qualms with the “leader” definition, I find the boat metaphor quite compelling. The cruise ship, in particular, seems to capture many of the ills that sometimes plague large organizations, beyond the leisurely purpose of the journey itself… Specifically, the stratification of membership into two classes: staff and passengers. Though often the “staff” are the privileged ones: ignoring what the “passengers” can contribute to steering the boat towards its destination, and optimizing solely for the “passengers” satisfaction/happiness. Often this a byproduct of failing to evolve the “employees as users/customers” metaphor from metaphor to analogy

As Fleming suggests, this is a fun one to play around with, reconciling contradictions, making distinctions, and drawing insights. 

Small Boat Leadership [Fleming]

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