One of the simplest measures of a leader is the depth of their keel. In this sailing metaphor, a keel is an extended ridge that runs the length of the belly of a sailing ship. The depth of a keel is what allows a ship to progress smoothly in the direction of a pre-determined objective. Without a keel, a ship under sail would skitter across the surface of the water like a leaf floating on the surface of a pond, completely at the mercy of the wind. It is because of a ship’s keel that it can do three things:
- It can stay a true course or change its direction
- It can move counter to prevailing winds
- It keeps the ship upright in the strongest of storms
At a recent design meeting, a company’s new CEO was fielding ideas that would determine the next phase of design in their product line. When the first person gave their input, the CEO responded with excitement and agreement: “That’s a great idea. We should have done this a while back”. The next person to share had conflicting thoughts on flaws in the design of the product to which the CEO responded; “I hadn’t thought of that, let us try it instead”. A third person offered still differing input and guess what, the CEO loved this idea and decided “this initiative” should be the foundation of the upcoming design change. While the CEO really did have something positive to say about the merits of each idea, everyone left the meeting feeling like the wind had been knocked out of their sails.
This trait translates into a leadership metaphor where we measure a persons’ ability to effectively direct themselves and others towards a common goal during times of turmoil. Can a leader create a culture of trust in the aftermath of a merger or acquisition where fear and distrust are at an all-time high? Or can a culture of abundance be created despite a prevailing belief of scarcity and lack? In both of these examples, the conflicting winds of doubt take the form of naysayers and skeptics who shout out or lean in to whisper; their opinions and analysis of a better, safer or more profitable course of action. Having a deep and even keel keeps the North Star insight while navigating the VUCA* waters of life.
Another way to use this metaphor is that in both ships and human, a deep keel allows one to weather storms well. Gusts of opinion, the rain of intense scrutiny and waves of opposition, seek to dissuade sailors from navigating by true north. Without depth of keel, this journey becomes harrowing, threatening and something to be avoided at all cost. With a deep keel beneath, the leadership journey becomes powerful, intense and an opportunity to willingly grow and deepen into our skills. As a committed leader, it is important to remember that a quiet sea never made a great sailor. It is precisely because of the intensity of the journey that great sailors are made.
Reflecting back on the CEO of earlier: An option that would have led to a different outcome would be for them to sit calmly and purposefully while being physically aware of their own keel. After listening to each idea, they share their opinions of the pros and cons of their particular viewpoint and then thank them for their input before moving on the next contributor. After listening to all offered inputs, they then take a few minutes to consider before making a decision. What do you feel would be the difference in outcome now?
This metaphor of a deep keel is one that can be taught simply and effectively. People who possess a deep keel are literally difficult to push over. It is an amazing thing to see a person sitting tall and effort-free, mentally simulating the experience of having a deep keel, while an opponent strains and struggles and cannot push them over. Training in this manner creates a learned experience that directly translates into applicable leadership skills. Leaders who possess depth of keel exude a calm assurance to all those around them that all is safe; all is as it should be; and most of all that they are in control of the ship.
Questions for discussion
1. What is one thing that prevents you from staying on an even keel?
2. When has your keel been the strongest, at what time or event in your life?
3. Who is your role model of a person with the deepest keel?
Things will never be the same for
the winds of life are constantly changing.
Love is the ability to navigate
by your own north star
immune to the capricious winds of life.
The new normal is change,
loving within change is priceless.
- VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic, and Ambiguous first used in 1987 based in the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. VUCCA is commonly used nowadays with the extra ‘C’ standing for Complex.