Gartner Blog Network


You’re not steering a ship, your leading an organization

by Mark P. McDonald  |  September 30, 2019  |  Comments Off on You’re not steering a ship, your leading an organization

The image is dramatic and clear.  A ship is sailing into a horrendous storm. They can see it on the horizon, lightening illuminating the sky, the seas getting rougher and rougher.  Attention turns to the captain, who is often behind the wheel and there is silence. …

Such is the dramatic setting often followed by a soliloquy, speech or peep talk about the storm, their dim chances of survival, what is at stake if they fail and ending with the captain’s confidence in the crew and all that they have gone through.  Queue the music, if it’s a movie, or turn the page to the final chapter in the book.

It’s a great plot device, a cliff hanger something we can all identify with.  It’s such a great story that its often used as an analogy for companies facing difficulties on the horizon.  The CEO captain rallying the organizational crew, standing firmly behind the wheel ready to steer through the challenge into a brighter tomorrow.

A ship at sea facing a storm is a terrible analogy for a company

It’s a lousy analogy for corporate leadership.   While we like to think of C-level executives as captains of industry, their company etc., they are people just like us.  People who are often more out of touch with their business than you would expect.  They do not stand at the wheel turning the ship.  They are not high up in the crow’s nest scanning the horizon.  No most of the time they are in the captain’s cabin with the other officers waiting for news and the need to give commands.

The future is always uncertain.  Organizations always need leadership.  The thing is that the nature of that future and the nature of leadership have both changed.  Captain’s no longer can think of themselves as leading from calm into turbulence.  Likewise, they can no longer see themselves as the only one with vision and a hand on the tiller.

We face multiple storms, some of which have been around so long we forget about them

There is no one storm on the horizon.  At every time, companies face multiple storms, to use this analogy, occurring at different rates and impacting the various parts of the organization.  The company ship has been sailing with many of these storms for years.  Examples of the storms we have all been sailing in, not through, include:

  • Customer Centricity and Experience – a storm that has been blowing for more than twenty years.
  • Digital business– going on its second decade it is moving from a full blown storm capsizing ships to a constant squall that churns the ocean.
  • Technology Tides – a shift in the technology gulf stream that is accelerating away from owning and operating technology to the cloud.
  • Organizational Transformation – demands from the crew to become agile, lightweight, empowered, self-directed all while seeking to be more diverse
  • Geopolitical – rouge waves that come from sea quakes or shifts in the moon that are difficult to see, significant in their immediate impact and devastating if they hit you broad side.
  • Economic –recession follows the storm analogy as builds up, crashes against the boat and eventually subsides and passes into recovery

Imagine a captain standing at the wheel saying, batten down the hatches and secure the cargo there is a recession coming and at the same time saying, add more sale, build more masts as we need to please more customers, and again, replace the compass, sextant, longitude and latitude as we will use these new metrics to guide ourselves.   Multiple directions, each individually legitimate – almost routine – but combined

An addendum to the captain’s log and rule book

Executives no longer have the luxury to limit their leadership to one issue = one action.  They are not managing a potential recession or a change in organization or a change in customer needs individually. They are collectively defining the sea in which we all sail.  So, what is a captain to do?  Three things come to mind.

First, believe in something.  Not just the captain, but the entire organization needs to have a few deeply held beliefs about the world, their place in it and the connection between the two.  In my experience few companies have beliefs. Sure, they have slogans, values, culture, but not beliefs.  For example, there was a difference between companies that believed the 2007 – 9 recession represented a ‘new normal’ and those who believed that the recovery would come, and they needed to work toward that. Belief before culture, strategy and all the rest of it.

Second, mobilize not manage change.  Challenge calls for change and for many that means re-adopting traditional approaches to change management.  Mobilize the organization, don’t wait for it to change.  Mobilization is the action of making something capable of movement. In a corporate context means having a belief based direction and outcomes.  Aligning resources, people and measures to the outcomes tells people what is important.  Base the direction on your beliefs.  Beliefs are the reason for mobilizing.  Mobilization is the how, who and when.

Third, execute and re-execute relentlessly.  Too many companies wallow in heavy seas making multiple course corrections in the face of little things.  Going one way only to go another when the wind seems to change.  Setting a course, monitoring its progress and adjusting as necessary has less drama, but it’s more effective.

It is romantic and simple to think of captains at the wheel, in the face of a storm conquering that storm with an act of vision and will.  It makes for great fiction, including stories about business leaders and so called great CEOs.  But these are stories.

Success requires hard work, by an organization, by everyone.  Not just a captain and

Additional Resources

View Free, Relevant Gartner Research

Gartner's research helps you cut through the complexity and deliver the knowledge you need to make the right decisions quickly, and with confidence.

Read Free Gartner Research

Category: leadership  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.






Comments are closed

Comments or opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management. Readers may copy and redistribute blog postings on other blogs, or otherwise for private, non-commercial or journalistic purposes, with attribution to Gartner. This content may not be used for any other purposes in any other formats or media. The content on this blog is provided on an "as-is" basis. Gartner shall not be liable for any damages whatsoever arising out of the content or use of this blog.