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What The Captain Told Me

In our frenzied dash to the finish line, there seems to be little time for... patience

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On a recent holiday, I went on a sunset cruise on a picturesque lake. It might have remained just another boat ride had it not been for an interesting conversation with the captain of the ship.

As it often happens on these cruises, several children — and some grown-ups too — were getting their hands around the steering wheel, taking pictures and getting the feel of  being momentarily in command. I did that too and soon found myself in conversation with the captain of the ship.

With my hands on the wheel, and the captain by my side, I asked him about his adventures at sea, and the stories began to flow. He interrupted the conversation, and said to me: “Turn left!”

I did as I was told and turned the wheel. That was easy, too easy. The ship continued to go straight. So I turned the wheel to the left one more time. But nothing happened.

So I turned the wheel once more. And that’s when the captain said to me, “Wait, wait! Not so much. Just turn a little. And wait for the results.” And then as if to remind me of  the old truism that it takes a long time to turn a large ship, he said, “If you keep turning, it will be too much and the ship will go way off course”.

Wow, I thought to myself, as I reflected later on those words from the captain. Turn a little. Wait for the results. That’s terrific advice — no matter whether it’s a boat you are at the helm of, or a team or a business. Do what you need to do. And then wait for the results.

We’ve all probably been guilty at some time of  being impatient for results. We’ve seen startups flounder because they spent too much — too soon — in their desperate desire to quickly scale up. The business idea was terrific but when those high growth numbers didn’t happen as planned, they lost their way.

Large companies have seen great product launches fizzle out. The product was good, the strategy was right. But when the launch sales targets were getting missed, the marketing teams ended up discounting the brand too much in the trade in order to meet those unreal sales targets. We do the right things first up, but when we don’t see the results, we get impatient — and make mistakes.

I remember an entrepreneur in the education space once telling me that businesses fail not because they don’t have a good idea, nor because they are not executing well. They fail because they don’t correctly estimate the time it takes to succeed.

So a great idea and sound execution get waylaid by the tyranny of missed targets and impatient investors. His advice: Be patient. If you think it will take you three years to be successful, add three more!

If  you look at lists of  leadership competencies, you will usually find phrases like ‘sense of urgency’ and ‘drive for results’. Seldom, if ever, will you find ‘patience’ in the list of leadership virtues. In our frenzied dash to the finish line, there seems to be little time for good, old-fashioned patience.
There are other problems arising out of a leader’s impatience too. Team morale, for instance. You advise a team-mate on what needs to be done. But even before he gets a chance to do it and show results, you get impatient. You remind him. You check on him. You tell him how to do it.

You are constantly at the poor chap, not giving him a chance to breathe, telling him the same thing again and again. And then, in a classic case of leadership failure, you do his job because you just can’t wait.

Plants don’t grow twice as fast because you give them twice the amount of water and extra manure. They take their time to grow. And that’s true for businesses and people too.

Good to remember that you might have the right medicine to cure the ailment, but drug overdose can kill! A sense of urgency is good to have. Leaders must make things happen fast. But not faster. Patience can be a leader’s friend!

Next time you feel things aren’t moving, remember the captain’s words. Turn a little. Wait for the results.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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magazine 22 July 2017 opinion startups

Prakash Iyer

Iyer is an author, speaker and leadership coach , and former MD of Kimberly Clark Lever

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