The parable of the leaky boat


One of the most fascinating aspects about coaching leaders, and about development work in general, is that many people wait till there’s a “crisis” to seek help. I think that's pretty natural — sometimes our hair has to catch fire for us to feel a compelling sense of urgency.

What this means is that when people initially engage a coach or find a development program, they often find themselves in a “reactive” state. They are feeling burnt out, stagnant, out of control, even without a sense of purpose. 

The comparison I like to draw is that of a boat in the water that has some holes. Water is leaking into the boat and weighing it down, and the individual is spending his/her time shoveling water out of the boat to avoid sinking. It’s working, but you know what he isn’t doing? He isn’t moving forward, exploring, and navigating the open sea. That’s why we have a boat: to journey.

When people initiate development work in a reactive state, the sense of urgency is often high. And the good news is that in this reactive state there is no doubt that the work will have an impact. It can, first and foremost, help create ‘white space,’ a critical time that is boxed and firm - where you are alone to reflect and focus on the issue at hand.

When the development work is effective, the holes in the boat will get plugged. Water will stop coming in and panic will subside. At least temporarily.

And that’s when the real opportunity arises. Because you can do one of two things. You can breathe a sigh of relief that the holes are plugged and get back to business. Without addressing the reason(s) those holes showed up in the first place. 

Or better yet, you can up your game. Focus on the real, deep development work. Make enduring changes that will better prepare you as you face future, inevitable crises. 

So how do we take it to the next level? How do we realize our full potential as opposed to repeating the reactive → less reactive → complacent → reactive… cycle?

Here are some ways you can stay proactive and future-focused with a mindset on development:

  • Create your own “space.” Find time in your schedule and make the choice to make it happen. 

    • Yes. This is a choice. Carve out time for you to focus on You.

    • Take “clarity breaks” during the days. Whatever works best for you. Strolls outside, deep breaths, etc. Create breaks and habits will relax and reenergize you.

    • Engage in self-learning and “deep work.”

  • Partner with a coach. Find a professional who is trained to facilitate a process of growth and development and who is 100% focused on you.

  • Create a personal board of advisors. Think of close friends, mentors, community leaders who align with your values and who have as much or more life “experience” than you. Ask yourself: What can you learn; how can you grow from each other?

  • Business-type support groups. These are typically tailored to C-Suite executives, but there are other groups out there as well (like our community at NextGen Center).

  • “Small” group format. This type of peer grouping can come through therapy, religious institutions, etc.

Regardless of the forum, it’s important to remember that development is a never-ending, continuous process. This is because change is constant, and unless we are proactive and intentionally changing and growing with time, we’re susceptible to sliding into a reactive state.

But when you are in a proactive state and uncertainty does rear its head (which it will), you will be more aware of it, prepared for it, and capable of coping with it more effectively. You will demonstrate resilience and take the next steps to move beyond it…to navigate the open sea and explore the potential that awaits.

Brian Alvo