Too often we reward people who solve problems while ignoring those who prevent them in the first place. This incentivizes creating problems. According to poet David Whyte, the key to taking initiative and being proactive is viewing yourself as the captain of your own “voyage of work.”
If we want to get away from glorifying those who run around putting out fires, we need to cultivate an organizational culture that empowers everyone to act responsibly at the first sign of smoke.
How do we make that shift?
We can start by looking at ourselves and how we consider the voyage that is our work. When do we feel fulfillment? Is it when we swoop in to save the day and everyone congratulates us? It’s worth asking why, if we think something is worth saving, we don’t put more effort into protecting it ahead of time.
In Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte suggests that we should view our work as a lifelong journey. In particular, he frames it as a sea voyage in which the greatest rewards lie in what we learn through the process, as opposed to the destination.
Like a long sea voyage, the nature of our work is always changing. There are stormy days and sunny ones. There are days involving highs of delight and lows of disaster. All of this happens against the backdrop of events in our personal lives and the wider world with varying levels of influence.
On a voyage, you need to look after your boat. There isn’t always time to solve problems after they happen. You need to learn how to preempt them or risk a much rougher journey—or even the end of it.
Whyte refers to the practice of taking control of your voyage as “developing an inner sense of captaincy,” offering a metaphor we can all apply to our work. Developing an inner sense of captaincy is good for both us and the organizations we work in. We end up with more agency over our own lives, and our organizations waste fewer resources. Whyte’s story of how he learned this lesson highlights why that’s the case.
A moment of reckoning
“Any life, and any life’s work, is a hidden journey, a secret code, deciphered in fits and starts. The details only given truth by the whole, and the whole dependent on the detail.”
Shortly after graduating, Whyte landed a dream job working as a naturalist guide on board a ship in the Galapagos Islands. One morning, he awoke and could tell at once that the vessel had drifted from its anchorage during the night. Whyte leaped up to find the captain fast asleep and the boat close to crashing into a cliff. Taking control of it just in time, he managed to steer himself and the other passengers back to safety—right as the captain awoke. Though they were safe, he was profoundly shaken both by the near miss and the realization that their leader had failed.
At first, Whyte’s reaction to the episode was to feel a smug contempt for the captain who had “slept through not only the anchor dragging but our long, long, nighttime drift.” The captain had failed to predict the problem or notice when it started. If Whyte hadn’t awakened, everyone on the ship could have died.
But something soon changed in his perspective. Whyte knew the captain was new and far less familiar with that particular boat than himself and the other crew member. Every boat has its quirks, and experience counts for more than seniority when it comes to knowing them. He’d also felt sure the night before that they needed to put down a second anchor and knew they “should have dropped another anchor without consultation, as crews are wont to do when they do not want to argue with their captain. We should have woken too.” He writes that “this moment of reckoning under the lava cliff speaks to the many dangerous arrivals in a life of work and to the way we must continually forge our identities through our endeavors.”
Whyte’s experience contains lessons with wide applicability for those of us on dry land. The idea of having an inner sense of captaincy means understanding the overarching goals of your work and being willing to make decisions that support them, even if something isn’t strictly your job or you might not get rewarded for it, or sometimes even if you don’t have permission.
When you play the long game, you’re thinking of the whole voyage, not whether you’ll get a pat on the back today.
Skin in the game
It’s all too easy to buy into the view that leaders have full responsibility for everything that happens, especially disasters. Sometimes in our work, when we’re not in a leadership position, we see a potential problem or an unnoticed existing one but choose not to take action. Instead, we stick to doing whatever we’ve been told to do because that feels safer. If it’s important, surely the person in charge will deal with it. If not, that’s their problem. Anyway, there’s already more than enough to do.
Leaders give us a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. However, when we assume all responsibility lies with them, we don’t learn from our mistakes. We don’t have “our own personal compass, a direction, a willingness to meet life unmediated by any cushioning parental presence.”
At some point, things do become our problem. No leader can do everything and see everything. The more you rise within an organization, the more you need to take initiative. If a leader can’t rely on their subordinates to take action when they see a potential problem, everything will collapse.
When we’ve been repeatedly denied agency by poor leadership and seen our efforts fall flat, we may sense we lack control. Taking action no longer feels natural. However, if we view our work as a voyage that helps us change and grow, it’s obvious why we need to overcome learned helplessness. We can’t abdicate all responsibility and blame other people for what we chose to ignore in the first place (as Whyte puts it, “The captain was there in all his inherited and burdened glory and thus convenient for the blame”). By understanding how our work helps us change and grow, we develop skin in the game.
On a ship, everyone is in it together. If something goes wrong, they’re all at risk. And it may not be easy or even possible to patch up a serious problem in the middle of the sea. As a result, everyone needs to pay attention and act on anything that seems amiss. Everyone needs to take responsibility for what happens, as Whyte goes on to detail:
“No matter that the inherited world of the sea told us that the captain is the be-all and end-all of all responsibility, we had all contributed to the lapse, the inexcusable lapse. The edge is no place for apportioning blame. If we had merely touched that cliff, we would have been for the briny deep, crew and passengers alike. The undertow and the huge waves lacerating against that undercut, barnacle-encrusted fortress would have killed us all.”
Having an inner sense of captaincy means viewing ourselves as the ones in charge of our voyage of work. It means not acting as if there are certain areas where we are incapacitated, or ignoring potential problems, just because someone else has a particular title.
Space and support to create success
Developing an inner sense of captaincy is not about compensating for an incompetent leader—nor does it mean thinking we always know best. The better someone is at leading people, the more they create the conditions for their team to take initiative and be proactive about preventing problems. They show by example that they inhabit a state rather than a particular role. A stronger leader can mean a more independent team.
Strong leaders instill autonomy by teaching and supervising processes with the intention of eventually not needing to oversee them. Captaincy is a way of being. It is embodied in the role of captain, but it is available to everyone. For a crew to develop it, the captain needs to step back a little and encourage them to take responsibility for outcomes. They can test themselves bit by bit, building up confidence. When people feel like it’s their responsibility to contribute to overall success, not just perform specific tasks, they can respond to the unexpected without waiting for instructions. They become ever more familiar with what their organization needs to stay healthy and use second-order thinking so potential problems are more noticeable before they happen.
Whyte realized that the near-disaster had a lot to do with their previous captain, Raphael. He was too good at his job, being “preternaturally alert and omnipresent, appearing on deck at the least sign of trouble.” The crew felt comfortable, knowing they could always rely on Raphael to handle any problems. Although this worked well at the time, once he left and they were no longer in such safe hands they were unused to taking initiative. Whyte explains:
“Raphael had so filled his role of captain to capacity that we ourselves had become incapacitated in one crucial area: we had given up our own inner sense of captaincy. Somewhere inside of us, we had come to the decision that ultimate responsibility lay elsewhere.”
Being a good leader isn’t about making sure your team doesn’t experience failure. Rather, it’s giving everyone the space and support to create success.
The voyage of work
Having an inner sense of captaincy means caring about outcomes, not credit or blame. When Whyte realized that he should have dropped a second anchor the night before the near miss, he would have been doing something that ideally no one other than the crew, or even just him, would have known about. The captain and passengers would have enjoyed an untroubled night and woken none the wiser.
If we prioritize getting good outcomes, our focus shifts from solving existing problems to preventing problems from happening in the first place. We put down a second anchor so the boat doesn’t drift, rather than steering it to safety when it’s about to crash. After all, we’re on the boat too.
Another good comparison is picking up litter. The less connected to and responsible for a place we feel, the less likely we might be to pick up trash lying on the ground. In our homes, we’re almost certain to pick it up. If we’re walking along our street or in our neighborhood, it’s a little less likely. In a movie theater or bar when we know it’s someone’s job to pick up trash, we’re less likely to bother. What’s the equivalent to leaving trash on the ground in your job?
Most organizations don’t incentivize prevention because it’s invisible. Who knows what would have happened? How do you measure something that doesn’t exist? After all, problem preventers seem relaxed. They often go home on time. They take lots of time to think. We don’t know how well they would deal with conflict, because they never seem to experience any. The invisibility of the work they do to prevent problems in the first place makes it seem like their job isn’t challenging.
When we promote problem solvers, we incentivize having problems. We fail to unite everyone towards a clear goal. Because most organizations reward problem solvers, it can seem like a better idea to let things go wrong, then fix them after. That’s how you get visibility. You run from one high-level meeting to the next, reacting to one problem after another.
It’s great to have people to solve those problems but it is better not to have them in the first place. Solving problems generally requires more resources than preventing them, not to mention the toll it takes on our stress levels. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
An inner sense of captaincy on our voyage of work is good for us and for our organizations. It changes how we think about preventing problems. It becomes a part of an overall voyage, an opportunity to build courage and face fears. We become more fully ourselves and more in touch with our nature. Whyte writes that “having the powerful characteristics of captaincy or leadership of any form is almost always an outward sign of a person inhabiting their physical body and the deeper elements of their own nature.”