One of my favourite day trips, when in “relax mode”, is to take a trip to the Cape Town Waterfront in South Africa – the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is set in Cape Town’s working harbour, with beautiful Table Mountain as the backdrop to this sprawling shopping mall area, yacht basin, hotels and a hive of quayside activity. I’m not a shopper and spend many nights in hotels every year, so these features don’t excite me. Of particular interest are the yachts and ships – I have always been fascinated by the technology and leadership required to get a vessel safely to its destination. This technology and leadership has to be good enough for the vessel to weather any storm, chart its way across endless nautical miles of open ocean and transport thousands and thousands of tons of precious cargo for clients worldwide.

On one such outing, as I was running my eye across the beauty of a berthed passenger liner, the excitement of cruise passengers very evident as they waited to board, I wondered about the answer to this question: “In relation to a ship that sails on the sea, who is the most important person?” I was not sure of the answer – obviously, the captain has a very important role to play, giving leadership to the crew. The engineer is also crucial, as he has to keep the ship’s engines maintained and running smoothly for a safe passage for the ship. The navigator gives direction and prevents the ship from going into hazardous areas, so this function is important too. Nowadays, I ask this question of my audiences and get the above answers, but one delegate answered once: “Could it not be the chef and the barman?” I guess they are important too – in fact, every member of the crew have important roles to play.

I found the answer to my question on a blustery day. I was standing quayside watching the crew get to work on preparing a tug for its short journey out to a tanker, waiting in the bay to be berthed in the harbour, the tug’s responsibility to guide the tanker safely into the calmer waters of the harbour and hold it against the quay until the ship has been secured. The Captain arrived, greeted me and sensing my interest, offered to take me along for the ride. What a privilege and what an experience – the power of the two diesel engines that propel the tug in any direction, being dwarfed alongside the giant proportions of the tanker and the professional approach and slick activities of the crew that ensured a successful berthing. I was impressed. During a lull in the activity, I asked the Captain my burning question: “In relation to a ship that sails on the sea, who is the most important person?” He smiled with a naughty grin and then responded: “The designer and builder of the ship”. He continued: “Jonathan, you see, you can have an excellent captain and crew, but if they have a bathtub to sail in, they will be in trouble. The designer and builder of the ship create the environment where the captain and crew can operate effectively”.

Back home again, I thought about the Captain’s answer – is this not true for organisations too? Managers and leaders within organisations should be creating the environment where all staff can operate effectively, creatively and efficiently. This is not just a physical environment, as in the ship, but an emotional environment where employees feel valued, their creativity and unique giftedness is sought and their contribution is rewarded. Employee engagement, great leadership and effective communication create this environment of trust – here innovation, effort and teamwork from staff become the norm.

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