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Keep Your People in the Boat

By Crane Wood Stookey

(Alia Press, 201 pages, $15.98)

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******

A tall ship is a container. It graciously skims the seas and opens new vistas for the sailors on board. But the ship makes demands on them and their bodies, and restricts their freedom.

"Life on a sailing ship is a strange mix of intense claustrophobia and vast space," Crane Wood Stookey, a tall-ship officer and leadership coach, writes in Keep Your People in the Boat.

"The most irritating and unreasonable person on board may be the person I have to stand watch with. For my private quarters, I get a bunk without enough headroom to sit up in, and on some boats, a curtain. … And everything is always moving, sometimes creaking and swaying monotonously on smooth seas, sometimes groaning and tossing violently in a storm. It's like living in a washing machine on an endless cycle."

He's entranced by it, in part because of his fascination with the power of containers to shape objects and people. He's a founder of the Nova Scotia Sea School, which offers hands-on training at sea for young people as well as team building and sailing trips to adults.

Watching the novice crews – particularly the young people – struggle with the tall ships offered him lessons in workplace engagement, which he shares in the book.

He recalls being a youngster, finding small rocks on a beach and putting them in a rock tumbler, where they would fall over and over amid grit that gave them a gem-like polish. "I've long felt the rock tumbler offers a helpful metaphor for considering what conditions can help people grow and prosper," he observes.

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To polish people into gems you need a container, such as a tall ship. You must add friction – something that wears away the individuals' sense of limitations and fixed ideas. Friction might be fierceness or anger, in certain circumstances, or affection, kindness and humour.

"For someone stuck in antagonism and criticism, offering them a simple appreciative kindness can be very frictional," he notes.

Then there comes the moment of discovery, when the inherent brilliance of the rock – or the person – is revealed. On a tall ship, or in your workplace, everyone has their own natural brilliance. But it might be hidden, and it requires favourable conditions to be revealed.

At his sea school, they have a saying: "Don't paint the rocks." After a rock tumbler is used, one of the polished rocks might not turn out quite right, and the inclination might be to paint it pink, for example, to make it look more like quartz. But the point of a rock tumbler is to bring out whatever natural brilliance the rock has.

"When we apply the metaphor to working with people, we don't try to 'paint' people with our own expectations," he writes. "Rather than try to manipulate people to be what we think they should be, we support them to shine in their own way. Then our organizations, and our society, can shine with them."

In putting these ideas into practice, he stresses the container doesn't have to be a tall ship. You simply let the situation do the work.

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As an example, he recounts former South African president Nelson Mandela's crucial meeting when he wanted to make peace with General Constand Viljoen, who led the militant white resistance to change. The general imagined the two, with their aides, arguing from opposite sides of a conference table. But Mr. Mandela invited the general to his home, had aides wait in another room and, as the two men sat side by side, Mr. Mandela spoke the general's native Afrikaans and served him tea.

Central to using this model, as Mr. Stookey demonstrates, is a willingness to be patient, to push past initial barriers erected by yourself or others, and to ponder how you can discover the hidden brilliance.

In a sense, the book itself is a container, a series of thoughtful, interwoven anecdotal essays. The friction for many readers will be the lack of easy answers or simple, fool-proof system. The discovery is yours to find.

******

Postscript

Terry Leahy, former CEO of British supermarket giant Tesco, offers Management in 10 Words (Crown Business, 312 pages, $25): truth, loyalty, courage, values, act, balance, simple, lean, compete, trust.

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Marketing expert Rohit Bhargava argues in Likeonomics (John Wiley, 184 pages, $29.95) that an important corporate metric is likeability, since that's how to earn trust and influence the behaviour of prospects and customers.

In Kill the Company, trainer Lisa Bodell calls for an end to the status quo and the start of an innovation revolution (Bibliomotion, 237 pages, $29.10).

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