“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” – Jimmy Dean
My neighbor across the street has his own boat and has been learning to sail. Through his experiences, I’ve been learning more about the terminology and techniques behind this popular pastime.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the concept of tacking. In sailing, it refers to when you sail against the wind, to change direction by turning the bow of the boat through the wind. I realize that this is what so many of us need to do in uncertain times.
Adjusting the sails is an important role of a leader, whether as the captain of the boat, the leader of the company, or the CEO of your own life. Yet as I’m learning vicariously from my neighbor, tacking is an art – a skill you have to really work on developing, as opposed to something you wake up knowing how to do.
When my neighbor tacks on his sailboat, he needs to read the wind and adjust on the fly. It’s not a once and done thing; you kind of live it, with your hand on the rope so you can feel the wind and adjust with it.
As leaders, we need to have our hand on the rope as well, or our finger on the pulse as we often say. This happens when we’ve got good data about what’s going on, so we can feel it and sense it. We must be willing to embrace planning, recognizing that plans will and must change.
Plans are concrete; moment-by-moment decisions are a very different thing. You’re going against the grain, against the wind, it’s counter-intuitive. It’s so much easier to go with the wind but sometimes you must go about-face and go right into it.
This theme came up in a conversation about resiliency. It was an organization I worked with during the pandemic when all their employees were working remotely. People had been asking for this change for several years and were told they had to be on site. Now, just like that, things were completely different from the norm – against the wind.
For many companies, remote working actually resulted in higher productivity. This was contrary to what they’d been doing and definitely how they’d been thinking, but they were adjusting their sails and focusing on how to make remote working work.
There were many churches who had been dead set against online giving, insisting that the only possibility was passing the collection plate on Sunday. Well, that was no longer an option so they were also forced to go against the wind.
Out sailing on a lake with my friend, we found ourselves at a point where we couldn’t go forward anymore going with the wind. We didn’t have a choice; he had to learn how to tack, which was a bit nerve-wracking.
On the lake that day, I saw more experienced sailors moving incredibly fast against the wind, showing how you really can harness that pressure against you for your benefit. It’s all in how you approach it, I’m learning. You can’t do it straight on; you have to go at it on an angle (we kind of zigzagged a bit).
As a leader and a sailor, it might be better to learn this skill before you have to, let’s say when you’re partly there and you can just tack a bit. Then you have some leeway and some room for error.
What will developing this skill do for you as a leader, and for your company? You’re certainly much more adaptable, which is essential because the wind will change, not just in big ways, but all the time in varying ways. When you learn to sail against the wind you can still retain momentum, something we cannot afford to lose.
The reality is we are tacking right now whether we want to or not, so we’re learning. Learning what’s essential and what isn’t. Learning to slow down a little bit and change course. Learning that we cannot always lead in a straight line – sometimes it zigs and zags.