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  • John McLean Dix

The Sailboat Story: A Lesson in Navigating Your Business


The Sailboat Story: A Lesson in Navigating Your Business

Your business is like a sailboat. By considering the parts of a sailboat and its crew, you can gain insights into how your business operates and how to plan your journey.

Every crew member and all the parts of a sailboat contribute to the success of your journey.

Thinking about the role each part of a sailboat plays in the journey, how the sails can be more or less efficient, how the rudder steers, and how the centerboard keeps everything in line, and how they work together for a successful journey are some examples.

Applying sailing principles to business is an effective way to analyze the dynamics of day-to-day and long-term business planning/strategies. Which levers impact your business and how can you control them? What keeps your business moving in the right direction? What signals are you receiving from the market place that hint at a new course for your business? What are your employees telling you that might guide the direction of your business?

For example, the jib, a relatively small sail in comparison to the main sail has a tremendous impact on how fast the sailboat glides across the water. In running a business, it is oftentimes the small changes that have the biggest impact on where our journey takes us.

And then there is the crew on the sailboat and in your business. There are many lessons to be learned by looking at the job each member of the crew does on a sailboat and how those roles can be optimized for your business. Each role has a specific purpose with its own unique needs, and it is vital that they work together as a whole, serving the overarching goals of the business.

I hope you join me over the next few months as we set sail to right your business and gain insights into your work that you can apply to transform your business. During this journey together we will no doubt encounter some rough water and stormy weather as we ask very real and hard questions about how to apply the knowledge gained to improve your business.

Let’s prepare to set sail …starting with the crew.

The Captain

The captain is in command of the boat, sets the course, steers the boat, manages the crew. Ultimately the captain is responsible for everything, and everything that goes wrong is his fault. But he is not alone. He is surrounded by all the support he and the ship need for a successful journey. His communication skills, knowledge of the waters, willingness to take risks, and ability to ensure the crew’s safety are all parts of his job.

Sound like anyone you know? Well, as a leader or a business owner or if you have direct reports who support your role in the business, you are the captain. And when considering your effectiveness as a leader, how well do you communicate with your teams? Does everyone on your boat understand the direction you are headed in? How well do you understand the dynamics of the marketplace in which you are sailing? Are you willing to try different things, and maybe risk capsizing the business? And how will you manage those risks in order to ensure the safety of everyone on board and the integrity of the boat?

Like the captain, the leader of a business has many resources as well as experts to assist in achieving success. The level of success is dependent on the effective use of resources and tapping into the expertise of everyone on board.. Before setting sail, an effective leader must get everyone “on board.” Effective communication of the mission, demonstration of values, and a clear strategy are paramount.

The captain of a sailboat is also responsible for the safety of everyone on board—life jackets, evacuation procedures, life boats, as well as all the necessities for survival in case of an emergency. So too, the leader of a business must ensure the safety and well-being of all employees.

As we continue our journey, we will take a closer look at the resources on a sailboat as well as the crew members and consider the role each plays in a successful journey. And as you define your business in these terms, from a sailboat perspective, opportunities will appear for a more successful business.

Navigation Points

At the end of each installment of this ongoing blog, I will present key points for you to consider, contemplate, and act on. Create a list of action items you can take from the blog and put to work in your work.

  • As a leader, how do you demonstrate the values of your organization?

  • How do you communicate strategy and the steps to get there?

  • Is your team “safe” both physically and emotionally?

This is the first installment of an ongoing blog. To see other installments, please visit my website at

www.jmdpartnerships.com. While you are there, look around and let me know what interests you.


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