Blog · Mar 11, 2016

How Does your Leadership Make the Boat go Faster?

Ben talks about the clarity and purpose of his Olympic team:

There’s an apocryphal story – which I’m sure you’ve heard a version of – about a visitor to the NASA Space Centre in the late 1960’s. On his way to see the latest Apollo space project, the visitor fell into conversation with a cleaner, sweeping the floor of a long corridor. “What do you do here?” asked the visitor. “I’m helping to put a man on the Moon” came the direct reply.

I’m still not sure if this story has any truth in it, but I do know that I’d like to run an organisation where all employees – no matter what they do – can link their contribution to its ambitious goals. Someone – probably that cleaner’s manager or supervisor – had done a wonderful job in connecting what we call the Crazy goal of the organisation to the daily activities of a person who keeps the house clean and tidy.

If I came into your business today and repeated the question to your customer service teams, your front line sales, your support staff, what answer would I get? Would I meet men and women who are clear about the motivating Crazy goal of the business and the significance of what they do? Or would I find employees who can’t see beyond the end of the keyboard or the headset – simply doing what’s in front of them rather than what will make the boat go faster?

To all intent and purpose this challenge in your business is leadership.  Although a much debated concept and practice, leadership is so often the key market differentiator between newer organisations with broadly similar access to people, technology and capital. It’s also a marked competitive advantage that helps exceptional and established companies stay exceptional. And leading brands stay leading for so long, year after year.

Knowing what’s important and focusing everyone’s efforts on the goals that will make the boat go faster clearly lies at the heart of our work. Yet some of Will It Make The Boat Go Faster’s historical research revealed that only 16% of respondents are fully clear on their organisation’s Crazy goal. Who are the 8 out of 10 employees who admit to not being clear on your excitements and ambitions – your Crazy goal? Are you one of them? Why is that and what can you do about it?

So where can you start?

Start with yourself. How clear are you on your Crazy goal? When did you last clarify your team’s equivalent of putting a man on the Moon? And how long since you last gathered the team around you to hear your excitements and energy about what you’re leading them to do?

Effective leaders firstly focus on what’s important for their organisation (and next, interestingly, for themselves). They clarify, test, challenge and isolate what are the most important goals to focus on, and why these are important. They mix the aspirational, the emotional and the practical, and when they’ve done this, they help everyone understand them. Quite rightly, leaders work hard to align the contribution of each individual with the Crazy goal. The NASA floor cleaner, after all, had to know what the purpose of his organisation was as a foundation for his connection. But don’t underestimate the focus and direction that you need to provide as the leader to have each person understand what will make the boat go faster.

Set a clear direction.

Engaged employees align their interests with organisational goals. That can’t happen if the organisation’s Crazy and Concrete goals are not defined or clear. The recession forced many organisations to re-evaluate their strategy to survive; coming out of it should mean another look at what it takes to thrive. If you haven’t yet done so, don’t delay any longer. A clearly communicated strategy and goals also builds workforce confidence in you – which reinforces your trustworthiness as a leader.

Help employees discover ‘what floats their boat’.

Engaged employees not only understand what needs to be done but also care enough to apply discretionary effort. As a leader, go first and declare your motivations and what’s in it for you to achieve the Crazy goal. Then ask them to discover the same. It can be an intriguing and uplifting process but to know why we’re all in the boat together is one of the foundations for high performance.

Focus on the performance as a leader – and the results will come.  

Sitting at the start of an Olympic final is much like starting a new sales year. The results you’re after will only come from doing the right things, better every time, throughout the year. What attitudes and behaviours do you need to focus on as a leader? How can you be sure to measure your progress throughout the year? How can you set a culture of challenge, to make sure you get better every time? Dreaming of hitting your Crazy goal is one thing. But leading yourself and others to perform better every time instils an attitude and belief that brings the right results, often later in the year.

Work with your direct reports – and have them work with each other.

It’s often tempting to do it all alone. As a leader and as a team member. Working with others to achieve your goals is a fundamental concept behind Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? and one that challenges my basic maths. 2 + 2 really does equal five!

Raise your own stakes.

Size up your own leadership. Be clear on how you’re performing. Understand what drives you. Leadership is a contagious, uplifting and confidence-building role; it’s something you just can’t fake. If you’re not ready to lead yourself and your team to your Crazy goal, make some changes. List out the key changes you need to make to raise your performance – and set a plan to deliver on them.

Finally, keep your leadership a daily priority

It’s challenging to deliver again and again, more and more, smarter and smarter in today’s competitive businesses. Focus on doing the right things, and doing them better every time can drive real change in your leadership, your teams and your organisation.

If you lead with your Crazy goal and improve your performance every day, bit by bit, you’ll soon succeed in creating the organisation or team you’ve always thought possible – but weren’t quite clear how to achieve. You’ll soon have your boat going faster!


We work with leaders, teams and organisations using Olympic winning strategies for greater business performance. We’d love to hear from you and how we might be able to make your boat go faster.

Tom Barry, Director, Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?


T: 02035428016

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