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If you can sync yourself with the motion of the seas and the heeling of the boat, sailing offers understanding. Sailing pits the action of the wind against the forces of the water, pulling the craft toward a destination. The sailor tunes her sails, fixes the position of the boat relative to the water, and moves. The behavior of the entire system (wind, water, boat) is fluid; the sailor knows that she rides a mercurial pattern; one that defies control. Sailing for a target is a constant process, not a one-time decision. The wind shifts, so must the sails be shifted. The sailor feels the wind on her face and neck. She reads the words of the wind on the surface of the water. A coherent experience resolves itself from these myriad, shifting elements.

In the field of leadership study and training, there are a million rules, books, recommendations, practices, things to think about, and habits to pick up. They contradict one another. They seem illusory, elusive. They all make sense, to some degree.

There is one foundation to leadership: understanding. It is the understanding of that sailor, accepting weather and physics, yet rejecting their whimsy. Understanding is the sailor’s recognition that the resolution of prior moments has everything and nothing to do with the moment she is in, but that only the next question matters.

I settled on three precepts of understanding: contradiction, ambiguity, and rhythm. I will try to describe the sense of these precepts, along with their utility to a leader or an emerging leader in his or her organization, hopefully without too much confusion.

In thinking,
keep to the simple.

In conflict,
be fair and generous.

In governing,
don’t try to control.

In work,
do what you enjoy.


Things are simple and complex. Concepts like darkness, equality, and understanding–these can be defined both clearly and succinctly and with great complexity and puzzlement. Particularly here in the western hemisphere, we eschew this duality. We frown at the notion that opposites might get along well, yet we see it all the time. Is that staff person a hard worker or a habitual procrastinator? Is the director brilliant or flawed? Is the public funding entity friend or foe? Can he be both substance abuser and charismatic youth advocate?

Things can be black and white at the same time. If you begin to think about duality and contradiction, you will see many examples in organizations.

A teacher once said that the softer she spoke, the more her young students paid attention. Authority works that way: the less you use it, the more you have.

Authority is a thick matter in organizations–the rules of who makes what decision and how and who tells who what to do. We have a fundamental suspicion of authority. Few appreciate it. Few of us like being told what to do. Few of us like being treated as though we cannot think for ourselves. Everyone hates the boss who thinks everyone else is there to carry out his great visionary thinking. The less we see of those trigger behaviors, the more we appreciate genuine leadership. These are shoes many leaders have forgotten.

Most of you are excited to be in a position to try out your own ideas, to prove your mettle, and to be leaders. Your personal aspirations may overwhelm those of the organization. There is a characteristic that enables you to take charge, to solve problems, and to speak during silence. You step into the void because you learn to believe that no one else will. It is your Achilles heel as well as your strength. You believe you have the right to occupy more space and to take up more bandwidth, because you have the courage to do so. Despite even mindful determination to back away from that behavior, staff will give you that bandwidth and will come to you seeking your authority.

The more you give it away, the more you will earn it in the minds of your staff and the more you will have to give. This will require that you behave in ways that may undermine your concept of yourself as strong leader. You will need to learn how not to make decisions; how not to jump to solutions; how to let go of your own vision in order to build a more encompassing one. You will have to help staff change their ideas about authority as well, in order to give voice to their own expectations and aspirations.

Phil Jackson, in his book, Sacred Hoops, recounts a lesson being explained by a teacher, Chen Cen, who spoke of authority: “The sun nurtures and vitalizes the trees and flowers. It does so by giving away its light. But in the end, which direction do they grow?”

This is the second enigma. One’s greatest strength is one’s greatest weakness. The great speaker may enjoy hearing himself talk a tad too much. The great listener may not be articulate when she needs to be. The good administrator may not understand the staff’s need for a passionate motivator. The passionate advocate has no heart for financial administration. In spite of this, we want leaders who never fail us, sun without sunburn, and rain without storms. We want to be those leaders.

The admonition here is to change the behaviors that deny the reality. Your characteristics are not a loose collection of traits. They are interwoven, strength and weakness, in the whole that is you. Listen more, ask questions, and encourage muscular thinking. Invite others to share your work, to participate in your activities, to think along side you. Don’t struggle to analyze yourself anew; what you need to know about yourself you probably already do. Your assets and liabilities are less important than those of the organization: its people, their relationships, and the prevailing dialogue.

Our senses are
lashed together,

each waypoint
a celebration

of understanding,
of meaning.

There is much
to be learned.


Our best understanding of existence is based on shifting premises. Much science and philosophy comes down to choice. This universal ambiguity pervades our life.

I directed an organization for youth who were under court supervision for delinquency. We had a saying: “the youth are us and we are them.”  The things that got them in trouble, the knots that made it difficult for them to let go of self-destructiveness exist in each of us, regardless of our life story. The success of our work was dependent on whether we could make that personal connection with the youth and whether we could extrapolate our sameness from our difference. It was difficult for many of us to do–we who had followed the rules and avoided the law and stayed in the middle of the road. It is not easy to call yourself a latent delinquent, to find and embrace your inner criminal.

Instead of accepting the diversity of possibility within us, we define, outline, and confine ourselves. We close off ambiguity. Because we puzzle over the incredible range of ambiguity and possibility inside each one of us, we struggle with the differences around us. We wage struggle with people who are different. We struggle with diversity. We label, judge, set boundaries, and proscribe behavior and thinking. We do this in our organizations.

If we learn to wait for the patterns to emerge, we see that labeling thwarts accuracy and truth. If you ask people what they think about organizational matters, you will learn something different about them than if you monitor the time clock. If you dedicate yourself to developing organizational leaders, you will see potential. We need to encourage the creation of community in our organizations, where difference and human imperfection (and thus possibility) are discovered and understood. If we can re-open the question of identity–of self and others–to explore the reality of possibility, we can find understanding.

The unknowable human beings that populate our organizations speak different languages. They are dancers trying to dance together while listening to different music; music created by their mother tongues, their cultures, their ethnicity, and gender. We are compelled by our missions to achieve goals and meet deadlines while trying to learn and understand each other– like trying to study the features of your boat while sailing it.

Our Achilles heel may be our reliance upon words. We haven’t learned to communicate well in the workplace with silence, emotion, rhythm, music, physical contact, or song. Yet these forms may be better at seeking and expressing understanding than words. Someone once said, “It ain’t the notes, it’s the spaces between the notes that make for great music.” We must learn to listen in those spaces.

Rhythm is the connector between moments. It is the intersection of time, timing, and energy. There is rhythm in all of life. We act in concert or in opposition to that rhythm. Your organization has a rhythm, a vibe, a flow that is difficult to describe in words. You feel it, you see it in action (when you look for it), and your intuition senses it.

My appointment as executive director was not made with staff input or involvement. That and my relative lack of experience made for less than a warm welcome. But I heard and felt something in my discussions with staff that witnessed to the strength of this organization. I felt staff looking for an opportunity to shine; felt a proud organization unwilling to fold in the face of financial strife. I was too elated by the vibe to act in doubt or insecurity. My job was not to impress or assuage, but to go to work and help find opportunity.

You should not act unless you feel. Acts of greatness, acts of meaning, important acts– no matter how simple–all require what the heart generates: feeling, passion, emotion, fervor. Sometimes there are feelings we cannot define–the sixth sense, intuition, and hunches. We have all had those good or bad feelings about a pending meeting, a prospective staff person, or some action being considered. Staying in touch with your ability to feel and sense keeps you in sync with the beat.

Sailing shows you this. You don’t sail by trying to control the boat, or any of the forces contributing to its motion. You sail by finding the “sweet spot,” by tuning yourself to the energy around you. Once in tune, small adjustments, sometimes made in anticipation of an impending change, keep you in rhythm. When they make big changes or big changes happen, great sailors, great musicians, great leaders excel at merging with the new rhythm. They work the beat.

Many of our staff retreat agendas were adjusted to account for a shift in the energy of the group. A conversation on race issues ballooned from one hour to three. A personal sharing session turned into deep emotional outpouring and mutual support. A burning desire to tackle communications problems in the organization dissolved after half a day of examination led to the conclusion that we were focused on the wrong things–the negative things. We stayed with the energy and flow of the group. There were plenty of complaints about follow-up, direction and structure–particularly from those who need order–but the diversions and the flexibility allowed for more complete expression of the group. Our organization was a place where human beings developed common unity.

The organization’s rhythm derives from its staff. Their individual rhythms are a product of some changing essence within them and the static and changing aspects of their cultural and historical backdrop. We feel those individual vibes more than we know them entirely. One instrument playing off beat affects the whole. Sometimes that is detrimental, but sometimes the different drummer helps move the organization to a new rhythm. The leader’s task is to help the group chart its course–one that may be elusive and tentative, like a night sail under cloudy skies. How do we know when to change our rhythm?  We sense it together. We have to learn to share it.

contradiction  ambiguity  rhythm:

jazz music–



Peter Hardie currently runs a nonprofit consulting practice for youth and community organizations based in New York and New Jersey. He is the former executive director of Roxbury Youthworks in Boston, a sometime sailor, sometime poet, and fixer of very old cars.