Both my father and brother were avid sailors. Dad kept it local, cruising the mild waters of the Banana and Indian Rivers. My brother, on the other hand, set his sights a little higher and was able to complete two circumnavigations of the globe.
The sailing bug never bit me, but because of proximity I learned the basics of seamanship. It was like growing up in a home filled with college football enthusiasts — whether or not you share in the almost-sacred devotion, you cannot help but be aware of how the season is going and what the outlook is for the next season.
One aspect of sailing that always intrigued me, and is also a great analogy for life and culture, is how a sailboat is able to move up-wind. When going “off the wind” in the direction the wind is blowing, you can unfurl the balloon like spinnaker and speed along.
Moving into the wind, however, requires a maneuver called “tacking.” When tacking, one sails up wind at a 45-degree angle, moving back and forth. Which, over time, gets you to your desired destination. This is where power boat enthusiasts check out, as they can hit the throttles and go right into the wind. But as my father would say, “If I wanted to get there fast, I could drive in my car.”
As I said, this sort of back-and-forth pattern to get to a desired destination is one I have experienced over and over again in life. For instance, as a Christian, I was confronted with the certainty that there was a spiritual reality and a physical or natural reality coexisting together. However, if my sole focus was on that spiritual reality and I didn’t thoughtfully and diligently mind the opportunities, responsibilities and relationships in the physical realm, I could quickly find myself off course or, worse, shipwrecked. Similarly, thinking the physical world is all that exists akin to thinking Newtonian physicists as good an explanation as we will ever hear.
I have found life is full of this sort of “tacky” (pardon the pun) balance.
When tacking, the challenge is when you “come about,” or begin moving in the opposite direction up wind. To do this, the boat must reach a maximum speed and then turn back directly into the wind. The momentum, when executed correctly, will take the boat far enough around for the wind to then catch the sail and off you go at a 90-degree angle from the direction you were going.
If you are not prepared for this maneuver or if you are experiencing it for the first time, it can be unnerving. As you make the turn, the sails begin to flap in the breeze like a large flag on a windy day, all momentum seems to be lost and then the boom — which holds the sail perpendicular to the mast — comes whipping across the deck and can easily knock someone overboard or unconscious.
Leaders have to be visionary risk takers, but they also have to be practical and process oriented. Managing people, like raising children, is based on motivation and direction that comes in the form of both patience and understanding, along with a demand for performance and goal attainment. It is not either/or. It is both/and.
This is especially helpful to me in understanding our political processes. Totalitarian regimes prefer the efficiency of rule without opposition, which soon becomes rule without consent. Our system, on the other hand, is designed to tack back and forth, avoiding extremes, but making steady progress, even if it isn’t in a straight line.