“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
This quote carries a compelling message on the power of “Why”. When an organization inspires us to move towards a greater good, we can achieve incredible things.
You might have seen this quote before. Many famous authors of leadership books attribute it to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In researching it, I found that it might not be from him. However, there is a connection to Saint-Exupery. You will find it valuable when working with your colleagues, your clients or just anyone.
Someone likely came up with the quote based on a passage of Saint-Exupery’s 1948 book Citadelle (The Wisdom of the Sands). In the book, the French aviator shares his wisdom through the voice of a Berber leader. Here are the lines that might have inspired the construction of the proverb, in chapter 75 of Citadelle:
“One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his axe. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.”
This source is giving us more nuances on the power of leading with an inspiring vision first.
In describing this group of people filling their role in harmony, Saint-Exupery portrays what other leadership experts have more recently called a high-performance team. Although not very poetic, it’s a concept that appeals to us in the business community.
Because the builders’ hearts are filled with love for the sea, they know what to do and self-organize.
Do you find yourself caught in a situation where collaboration fails? Just move the conversation to higher grounds and change the narrative to something more meaningful.
However, Saint-Exupery doesn’t mention the courage that this solution requires. I believe that it truly takes quite a bit to create an authentic purpose-driven organization. I am wondering how many people in a position of leadership can do this for real.
Since it looks like an inspired self-organizing team doesn’t need anyone anymore to command and control, what will happen to the boss?
If you are the boss or feel like you “own” what the team is doing, will you be able to let go of power?
Will you go beyond your fear of not having anything to plan, check and correct?
How will you react if the work doesn’t turn as perfect as you’d hoped?
How will you demonstrate personal accountability?
Will you be ready for this change?
Or will you try to lead with purpose just because it makes you look good… only for a short while?