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Ric Raftis Consulting

Leader Ship – A Nautical Analogy

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The term Leadership is one of those in very common use in many circles. But what does the term really mean? There are any number of definitions of the word littered through articles and text books, not to mention pontificating academics in the hallowed halls of learning.

This article takes a different approach by applying a nautical theme and analogy to the word.

To do so, the first step will be to split the word in two, so now we have Leader and Ship which will form the basis of our analogy. Exploring leadership involved in this manner will involve you as the reader boarding the ship and joining the crew as we navigate the metaphorical seas.

The Captain, the Ship and the Ocean

As we delve deep into the analogy you should be able to relate to the captain as being the leader guiding the ship on its journey. The ship itself, represents the leader’s team as it sails its way through an ocean of market fluctuations, corporate challenges and the pursuit of strategic objectives. Each member of the team is critical to the success just as everyone on the ship has a vital role to play.

The ship’s navigation tools used by the Captain can be likened to a leader’s traits and values. The route mapping and weather forecast are similar to tools used for strategic planning and decision making.

The ocean is a dynamic environment, similar to life, and the captain and leader needs to battle stormy business environment and navigate through them. Every wave encountered and sailed through in a storm is testament to the resilience of the ship and crew and a calm sea is a deserved respite along the journey.

The Leader’s Role

Considering the maritime metaphor being used, the leader is the captain. He does not dominate his crew with micro management, but should trust them to do the job they are skilled at. Such an attitude empowers the crew and builds their skills and abilities. Leadership traits can be likened to the life jackets on the ship. It is their buoyancy that keeps one afloat in perilous and testing times. There are many historical examples of famous captains who established the culture of the crew to build remarkable resilience.

The Compass as Values

Compass in persons hand.
Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

Values are the the compass that guide leaders in their decision making and behaviour. No doubt readers have heard the term “moral compass”, a similar principle. The compass prevents the ship, like the leader, from steering off the course. So, before embarking on any journey, the compass needs to be aligned with the values so the organisation’s North Star can be followed. A part of this process is establishing clear expectations with appropriate ethical standards as well.

Propellors – Empowering and Supporting

Leaders are the propellors that drive the team forward, just like the ship. To adopt a sailing metaphor, the leader’s actions and words are the wind in the sails to create an environment of growth. And just like the propellor’s on the ship work quietly away beneath the surface, the empowerment by the leader can happen behind cabin doors, unseen, but with the potential to create ripples through the entire crew.

Storms at Sea

No sea journey is smooth sailing all the way, nor is it a direct line from one port to another. The same applies to business where the journey is never linear, but full of ups and downs mixed with a few sideways for good measure. Back at sea, every storm creates a potential learning opportunity where the captain can lend experience but maintain accountability for the crew. Such moments have the capacity to build considerable resilience.


Throughout our nautical voyage, we have considered the attributes of dynamic leadership. These include planning to engender strategic foresight, values and ethics that bind the team and crew together and a positive understanding of the value of setbacks on the journey.

Seafaring has a rich tradition and is full of stories of the leadership, the resilience, the courage and innovation of many captains. We need to instil these same traditions in our leaders of today and build these qualities. Leaders are meant to lead their teams on journeys of discovery. As Grace Hopper said, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” So gather your crew, set your sails, and enjoy the thrill of the voyage.


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