Insight article

Sailing – the ultimate metaphor

I was talking to a client yesterday who is currently immersed in planning his company's strategic engagement process. He emphasised the need for clear direction from the top in order to understand exactly what's required for its implementation, and made the point that by letting this planning drift, even just a little, over a period of time you run the risk of finding yourself way off course in the long-term.  What I liked about the conversation was his use of sailing as a metaphor:  drifting a couple of degrees off course without immediate correction can scupper the navigation to your desired destination.

Coincidentally, we also launched a new client's Story yesterday to their top 200 leaders.  Their StoryMap was illustrated purely by sailing images.  Not for the first time has a client used such imagery to describe the challenges and milestones of the journey ahead.

Just think about how many times sailing is used as a metaphor or analogy in the workplace.  How many times have you heard leaders use the term 'to navigate' through 'troubled or stormy waters', or 're-chart the course', or use a Story as an 'anchor', 'compass' or 'guardrails' for the business?  Countless times I've heard references to 'the winds of change' or the need for 'a strong hand on the tiller'. Keeping the business on 'an even keel' or behaving in a way that's 'above board', 'staying afloat', 'battening down the hatches' and 'sailing close to the wind' are just some of the phrases that litter business language.  And of course, the 'mainstay' of the economy is one of the most common nautical terms around.

I'm not complaining.  As one who comes from a family obsessed with sailing, such analogies resonate strongly with me.  I like the use of sailing or other sporting terminology to describe the challenges of leadership, direction and competitive edge.  It just shows how much we draw on our life experiences and love of leisure pursuits to make sense of what's happening in the workplace.  Such metaphor – both verbal and visual – is without doubt one of the most powerful tools to help people communicate and understand the complex, abstract principles of business.  For The Storytellers, it's a fundamental method of illustrating our clients' stories.

Nailia Tasseel