If you look up the etymology of the word “leadership”, you’ll only find an explanation for “lead”. It’s derived from laitho, meaning “finding your way”. If you search for the meaning of the “ship” suffix, it’s explicitly stated that there’s no relation to the sea vessel. I think they’re wrong.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself as a ship, like a luxury yacht or a large oil tanker sailing the ocean. You’re part of a fleet, but you’re positioned in the lead. You’re leading in the sense that you’re navigating from the front, rather than leading by control, or being the boss. This, of course, is just a metaphor. A metaphor for a vision to achieve something and wanting your colleagues to follow you in your ideas. It’s quite interesting, the similarities that exist between leadership and being the leading ship. The following are four examples that I consider to be the most important leadership skills.
First of all, the leading ship is not physically connected to the other ships. If you change direction, it doesn’t mean that other ships are sure to follow. The only way to make them follow you is by influencing them to do so. Of course, you could try to make a physical connection by tying a rope, which would definitely speed up the process of changing directions. But it would also mean that you have to work harder to keep everything moving. There’s also a very reasonable risk that the rope might break, which presents a host of other potential consequences. More importantly, however, this would be leadership by force instead of influence and would result in coercing your colleagues to follow you. If you’re the boss, this is certainly an option, but I still don’t believe that this is a sustainable solution for keeping the lead.
To inspire others would be a much more effective approach. Communicating the right direction is easier if there’s a clearly defined goal. In terms of the vessel metaphor, describing the destination you want to go, or even better, if the destination is already visible at the horizon, will make it easier for others to follow your lead. Setting a course is good but I prefer to define the destination and the parameters and let every captain find his own way.
At times, there can also be some distance between the different vessels. Some of them may be in range, and others may not be visible at all. So, how do you communicate with the other ships what you would like them to do? Of course, you can use all kinds of modern communication techniques. But I think that there’s no better way than face-to-face communication, as in: climb aboard. Why do you think that a local pilot still boards the ship to advise the captain of the local navigation conditions in a harbor?
The larger the vessel, the more difficult it is to change direction. The same applies, of course, to a group of people. More people means more opinions. It’s just a matter of mass and inertia. It will take your time, your energy and your tenacity to deliver the message. And, after all of that, you’ll still have to wait to see if your message results in a change of course, hopefully in the expected direction.
Being the leading ship doesn’t automatically imply leadership. Time, communication and a clear goal will help, but there’s still no guarantee that others will follow. When you notice that others are following you, you’ve done a great job. But when they don’t, stay the course. Being a leader also means not giving up too easily.