I thought for the next installment of my unorganized series of posts that I could call “Leading on the Seas” that I would choose one of the more colorful terms in sailing lore – three sheets to the wind. I’ve been physically about 50% or less for the past 10 days so I’m excited to try to get back into things here as I start feeling a little better.
You most likely are familiar with the term as it relates to how it is used to describe a person’s level of drunkenness. For example, “He’s been drinking all night and now he’s three sheets to the wind.” Picture someone walking down the street in a drunken stupor – staggering in a zig-zag type of path with no ability to control or regulate his actions or physical ability to do what he might have in his mind to do. It’s a sailing term – but not just because sailors might have been known for drinking heavily in their time off. There’s a hierarchy too, which I learned from wikipedia – four sheets to the wind indicates someone who has drunken themselves into unconsciousness.
The “sheets” are not the big sails you might first think of – they are the ropes that keep the masts secure (see picture of 3 sheets). “Three sheets to the wind” is a term that refers to when the sheets on the masts come loose. On a three-masted ship, this would mean that there is absolutely no navigational control of the ship and you are completely at the mercy of the elements and wind. You could have the best captain in the world, the best navigational chart and plans, and the best crew, but if those sheets come loose your vessel is going to resemble a drunken sailor walking down the street who has no ability to dictate where he ultimately will end up. The wind would have total control of your ship and likely control over your fate and the fate of your crew as well.
I spent the better part of this past week doing strategic planning and talking about big vision, direction, and a variety of organizational priorities with my team. It was hard work and great fodder for thought moving forward. I thought it was a pretty productive time, perhaps more productive that 90% of past strategic planning processes I’ve been a part of previously and I was trying to figure out why I felt that way. In talking with my team and hearing some of their thoughts, I think I landed that our success in this process and what I hope will be our success this year as we move forward – is dependent on a few critical capacities that don’t often get discussed in planning efforts and maybe worse yet they are assumed to exist.
For our team, here are the critical capacities that I think make our vessel go. These I believe our are “three sheets” that if they are not tied down securely (see picture), then who knows where we end up down the road. Without them, we would be like a crew that is doing all of its jobs and keeping the boat clean and functional – all the while having no control over where the ship is ultimately going.
- Absolute awareness & security in our identity as a team and the culture we want to create for ourselves and those we serve.
- The emotional, spiritual, and organizational resolve to differentiate ourselves individually and as a team from all the organizational stuff around us. We’re reading Orbiting the Hairball together as a step to continue to grow in our ability to relate well to the complexities around us, but avoid entanglement enough to offer an inspired leadership effort that is creative and value-driven and not rote or reactionary to organizational demands and bureaucracy.
- Total clarity on what it means to empower people and having the clear and adult resolve to lead ourselves and foster that type of vision-driven responsibility among others. This can sound generic – but what I mean is being very, very clear about what it means to truly empower, help, and serve people in the areas we’ve been called to and creating a culture of adulthood and responsibility. A lot of people use “empowerment” but don’t know how to do it. We need to have a very clear picture about how to empower in our context.
We need these three things to be secure first on our team, and then ultimately throughout our whole organization and context for our vision to be realized. Yet typical teams don’t frequently talk about them!
Any general defaulting of real and authentic leadership by positional leaders can result in the three sheets to the wind effect. But my point here is to highlight some of those fundamental capacities that not even a great or charismatic leader compensate for. The above things frankly would never really show up in a strategic plan apart from perhaps maybe an oversimplified stated value. This is where strategic plans must be submitted to some higher level leadership realities. Strategic plans are great tools, but by themselves they don’t make for inspired leadership. Yet so many still seem to want to use their strategic plans to inspire. I say find another way!
All that to say, with good leadership and good plans you can accomplish some good stuff, but without having your three sheets securely fastened you won’t end up where you really would like to be when it’s all said and done.
When you think of “three sheets” or three masts that preserve the integrity of your efforts to lead and move forward, what comes to mind?
What fundamentally needs to be in place in your context for you to retain the capacity to move together with your team or community to the ultimate vision you are working towards? How do you foster those critical capacities?You can read more on “sheets” here.
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