Much like leadership, the sea is often a lonely and terrifying place. I’ve read enough Melville and Homer to firmly believe this, but i think the leadership lessons go much deeper. I heard an amazing quote the other day from a leader talking about the idea of a boy becoming a man. He said, “Like a ship in the ocean, a man runs better with weight on him.”
This is the simple yet brilliant idea of ballast. For a ship riding the swells of a deep sea voyage, it needs something heavy to help it sit lower in the water. That weight, or ballast, helps lower the water line on the boat, keep the ship from rocking, and make it easier to stay on course amid the gales and currents. And when a cargo ship is full, the cargo provides the ballast. But when it’s empty, a ship often has large tanks that take on sea water in order to provide that stability. Without that additional weight, that ship would be tossed about wildly on the swells and troughs of the open sea.
For anyone in a group or professional setting, the weight of responsibility is the first thing that helps a person grow — especially for leaders. But it’s not merely the presence of the weight that makes the difference. It’s how you handle it. The taking on of responsibility doesn’t make you better. There are far too many young leaders who take on the world, only to be crushed by it. So how do you take on what and how does it make you grow?
I’ll start with a story. When I was 28, I fell into a position where I was supposed to manage a department of 31 creatives. I was also one of the youngest people on the team. Simply put, I was terrified. I’d read or listened to a host of leadership books, but I had no idea what to functionally do. So how did I cope? I focused on the work — my work — to make it the best possible. But I did so at the neglect of everyone else on the team. I didn’t manage anyone well, other than myself. I let the fear of conflict dominate me, and I failed as a manager. So what gave me the ballast I needed? We lost half of the largest client in the company, and I had to lay off people slowly over time. It was the weight of that painful experience that forced me to confront the fact that I was managing a dying culture with a desperate need for leadership. I had to do something hard before I was prepared to lead.
I can guarantee you — I would’ve never volunteered for that assignment. But I had a situation forced upon me that required me to grow into the leader I could be. And that’s kind of the thing about growth. It is not something you can necessarily make happen. It requires the right amount of time and the right conditions. Think about it. A seed must die in order to produce the plant it was created to produce. It can no longer be a seed. It has to give up being a seed. To be an effective leader, we most often have to give up something costly in order to do the jobs we are asked to do. And it’s not necessarily something you would choose to go through. Sometimes, those growth moments find you.
Therein lies the challenge, whether you are cultivating leaders or are one yourself: can you put yourself in positions to put weighty things on your shoulders (other than excessive tasks) that force you to be a better leader? Or, is there a situation you’re avoiding right now that will force you to grow because it is too difficult? I would encourage you to step into it. You’ll endure future challenges better, as you get comfortable with wearing the weight of it. And remember, that challenge isn’t going to go away or fix itself. It will be there tomorrow, gnawing at your confidence.
And if you’re managing people, what growth opportunity are you denying them because you’re afraid it will crush them? Rather than drop the weight on them, help them get adjusted to carrying it — but don’t keep it from them because it is hard.
Hard things — heavy things — are the only things that make us better.
There’s a great insight that comes in different ways from both Gandalf and Henry V. No one will ever be lying on their death bed remembering the easiest times of their lives. No one ever writes an inspiring story about people who were comfortable. No one reflects on how great it was when you overcame nothing. We only always ever remember the hard stuff. Because we remember what it feels like to grow.
So take on that problem.
Step into that challenge.
And delegate that hard thing.
You’ll remember it.
And you’ll be able to handle the waves better if you do.