Sailing and academic leadership

Sailing is a wonderful metaphor to describe academic leadership. You, the skipper, have to steer the boat (your unit) towards your goal while accounting for the impact of wind and waves (enrollments, institutional priorities, the priorities of funding agencies, etc.). As a wave pushes the boat off course, you have to fight the urge to immediately steer in the opposite direction, rather wait patiently or make just a small correction knowing that the following wave may push you back on track. Reacting to every small change in course not only drains your energy, but also makes your voyage less efficient as you repeatedly over-correct, slaloming away from the straight path.

Even when external forces are directly opposing your progress, say the wind blowing directly from your destination, you can still reach your goal by tacking — deliberately changing direction to slowly approach your target.

What lessons can we learn from this metaphor? Be patient and only make changes, most of them small, when straying too far off course. Even when the winds of change seem to be blowing against you, you can still reach your destination by carefully navigating around the wind. While the voyage may be long, you will get there if you, and your crew, know where you are going. Absent a clear goal, you’ll be left floundering at sea at the mercy of the elements.

If I may continue with sports metaphors, golf represents another kind of academic leadership — you hit the ball as hard as you can in the general direction of your goal, then wait impatiently to see if it gets there. Most often it doesn’t, so you whack it hard in a different direction. There is no opportunity for mid-course corrections, say when a gust of wind pushes the ball into the rough. This approach will also eventually get you to the target, but the voyage will certainly be a lot less enjoyable, especially for your unit (the ball). And when you get there, the journey ends in a hole.

What kind of leader are you?

Written by

Mihai Pop is a professor of computer science, and an expert in computational biology. He is currently the director of UMIACS — a research institute.

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