Are you the Captain of your ‘ship’?

By Martin Brooker

Becoming the Captain of your own ship is the ultimate test of yourself and stepping up to be the leader that people need you to be.

Right now, each person in a leadership role, whether formal or informal, will be feeling the burden of being the ‘captain’ of their ‘ship’ and team.

The English sea captain and writer, Joseph Conrad, described the role of the ‘captain’ as:

‘In each ship there is one person who, in the hour of emergency or peril at sea, can turn to no other person. There is one who alone is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire and morale of the ship. They are the Captain. They are the ship! ‘

When I took command of my ship, it was nerves and excitement, all mixed up in one.  As I walked up the gangway my thoughts were dominated by the words of Joseph Conrad, ‘one who alone is ultimately responsible'. Two and half hours later the ship was at sea and underway from the port of Burnie, Tasmania returning to its home port of Sydney.

While I had both the authority and accountability, I was not an expert in everything that made that ship and the crew operate as a high performing team. That first day, before we started the engines, I made it very clear that ‘just because I was the Captain it didn’t mean that I was the smartest person in that ship’.

Being the 'captain' doesn't make you the smartest person in your 'ship'.

One of our greatest challenges we have as a leader is to recognise that we don’t need to have all the answers. As the ‘captain’ we don’t have to be the expert in everything, we have to get good at asking great questions. 

My top 3 questions are: 

#1 What assumptions are we making?

We make assumptions every day. We assume what's going on for our clients. We make assumptions about what will work and what won't work. And in the current state we are most likely making assumptions about the future!  

A key part of military planning is to test the assumptions. When we ask this question, we help our team to test the status quo. What's real? What information do we need to actually help us? It's a question that we can ask at any time. And the real benefit is that we teach people that it is ok to ask questions and be comfortable in not having all the answers.  

#2 What's the conversation we're not having?

There is so much going on in the world right now and as leaders, we feel the stress to make the right decision in everything, yesterday.  

‘What’s the conversation we’re not having?’ allows people that think and process information before they offer an opinion or people that are reluctant to stick up the hand and say ‘you know what, we actually haven't talked about this key issue’ to contribute to the conversation. 

If we don’t create this space to talk about the things that might really bite us in the butt, then we are exposing the ‘ship’ to unknown risks. It could be another question from the team that we would never have considered asking ourselves that highlights a risk that we hadn’t ever seen. 

This question accesses the collective brains trust, wisdom, intelligence and experience of the whole team. Ultimately, we stop ourselves from over controlling the team and the dialogue in meetings.

#3 What's the story that we want to tell about this time in the future? 

What's the story that we want to be able to tell in the future about our organisation. Will we talk about how the team worked together to achieve high performance in the most challenging of times? How we shifted our business adapting our services and products to allow us to serve our customers in this time of stress.

We are finding ourselves more often wanting to make sense of the contradictory, the paradoxical or what I like to call wicked problems, just like the COVID 19 pandemic the world is facing today; challenged at any and every moment by the choices we have as leaders. Those challenges are anchored in evolutionary and constant change as we adapt to changes in our business reality

It is your choice…this is not about great intentions; it is about a clear vision for the future fully cognisant of today’s reality.

During my time being the Captain of the shipless than 5% of the decisions were commanding or directive in style. Knowing that we don’t have to have all the answers is a great relief. Knowing that we can ask great questions is the key to having a high-performing team in the face of significant change is invaluable.

Republished with permission from the author, Martin Brooker.