“The bad leader is hated and feared.
The good leader is loved and praised.
The great leader, when their work is done,
The people say, “We did this ourselves.”“
I too aspire to be the leader that Lao Tzu describes, to make my leadership not about me. But generous leadership, selfless leadership, is hard to give. I crave love and praise as much as the next guy. And I often find that in the pressure of the moment, in the rush to get things done or under the weight of my responsibility, I fall back into the small, fearful, controlling view of making it all about me. But when I succeed in leading generously, the results always exceed my expectations.
On one 10-day voyage with the Nova Scotia Sea School, a young woman was my assistant instructor, and there were also two senior crew, veterans of previous voyages, who were sailing as Leading Crew, instructors-in-training. After a few days I turned command of the boat over to the three of them for the day. I went and lay down in the middle of the boat along one of the midship thwarts, the rowing benches that run across the boat, and rested my head on the gunwale. After a while I folded my hands on my stomach and pulled my broad-brimmed straw hat down over my face.
I didn’t really sleep. We had a long, vigorous beat to windward, the kind of sailing that calls for careful attention from the crew steering at the helm. I could tell by the motion of the boat and the sound of the wind in the sails whether we were badly off course or sailing poorly. For a while I made a comment or two from under my hat when the crew steering at the helm veered too far from the wind, but then I stopped. The assistant and the Leading Crew kept the steering focused, or they got distracted themselves by the thrill of the ride, then focused again, and we made good progress.
I lay there under my hat for a couple of hours, keeping still even through the periodic commotion of tacking the boat, listening and feeling everything, enjoying the conversations and excitement of the crew. I dozed occasionally, waking up whenever the motion of the boat changed. But the crew did well, and I just lay there.
At the end of the trip the assistant and the two Leading Crew told me that they had been so pleased to see me sleeping while they took command of the boat. It made them feel their responsibility was real. They felt trustworthy and competent, eager to rise to the task. At the same time they knew I hadn’t abandoned them. One of the Leading Crew told me that having me sleeping there through the maneuvers made him feel safe. So I got my love and praise in the end anyway.
When the people say, “We did this ourselves,” it’s not that they have become leaderless. It’s that the work has become about them, not about the leader.Excerpted from Crane’s new book, Keep Your People in the Boat-Workforce Engagement Lessons from the Sea. If you would like to talk to Crane about his support for your leadership and engagement strategies, or to have him speak to your group, please contact him.