Leadership Lessons from the Old Man and the Sea

The other day, while channel surfing, I caught a glimpse of Spencer Tracy playing Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea.  It didn’t register much at the time because as you may know, when one channel surfs, the little grey cells kind of take a nap.  Later though, I began to think about that story and the lessons it has to teach us.


For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Santiago is an old fisherman living in a village not far from Havana.  Fishing is his livelihood and yet he has failed to catch any fish in eighty-four days. The young boy, who usually goes out with him, is instructed by his father to stay away from the old man. He is bad luck.  So Santiago goes fishing alone.

On the eighty-fifth day, he decides to go out further than he usually does because somewhere within him, he believes there is a big fish just meant for him.  His instinct proves to be correct as his hook and bait are swallowed by a Marlin so large it dwarfs the boat.

The Old man is determined to catch this fish.  He wants to prove that he isn’t bad luck. He envisions bringing the giant fish into the tiny harbour of his home with enough to feed the whole village.  Perhaps, deep down, he likes the idea of being a hero.

So, Santiago hangs onto the fishing line with all his might.  The fish fights valiantly all the while dragging the boat further and further out to sea.  The old man suffers as the line cuts through the muscle of his hands and his back goes into spasms of pain from pulling and resisting.

In the end, the fish tires enough to allow the old man to reel him in closer to the boat.  It is then that Santiago is successful in sinking his harpoon into the fish’s heart.  The battle is won.  But, the war is just beginning as the old man realizes the fish is bigger than the boat.  So with great diligence and respect, he straps the fish to the side of the boat and begins to make the very long journey home.

Over the course of the journey, the fish is attacked again and again by sharks.  And, as much as the old man fights to preserve it, he fails.  By the time he reaches home, he is completely exhausted… and the fish is reduced to a skeleton.


Let’s, just for fun, suppose that Mr. Santiago is the CEO of his own company.  His fishing business is not doing well.  He has no allies except perhaps a young assistant who, while eager, is being influenced by his family to look for work elsewhere.

Mr. Santiago is desperate to save his business and his reputation in the business community. He decides to take a huge leap of faith without really thinking it through.

At first, it looks as if his tactic is paying off.  In fact, he starts to reel in more business than he can possibly handle.   And, it’s starting to draw the attention of other businesses hungry to expand.  Mr. Santiago fights hard to protect his interests with the few resources he has, but to no avail.   Eventually, he is forced to close his doors and the glorious outcome he envisioned when he set out, becomes unattainable.

So, what advice might we give Mr. Santiago to help him realize a different outcome?  Well, a few things come to mind for me:

Have a clear goal

Spend some time envisioning the goal.  In your vision, where are you fishing? How much and what kind of fish are you catching? How big is your boat? What equipment do you have?  Who is giving you support?  What have you learned that you don’t know now?  How did you learn it?

Build a plan to support the goal.

Being able to clearly imagine the goal is important but you must also have a realistic plan for achieving it.  This includes ensuring you have sufficient resources and capability to execute the plan.   And, by the way, a good plan is only good when it is acted upon. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in wasting your time.

Consider the potential risks and rewards

Before venturing into uncharted waters, it’s a good idea to first reflect on what you stand to gain and lose by doing so.  If the risk seems greater than the potential reward, you might want to re-think the strategy.

Develop Solid Relationships with others

John Donne once said, “No man is an island entire of itself”.   With that in mind, consider inviting others to share the goal and be part of the venture.  Protect your interests from becoming shark bait by offering other, like-minded people of your choosing to participate and share in the rewards.

Think Beyond the Achievement of the Goal

To consider achievement of the goal as the end would be a mistake.  You also have to anticipate what might happen in the event of a huge success.  What then?  How will you manage it? What more will you need? How will it change you? How will it change your company?

Know When to Cut the Line

There is of course a point of no return on just about everything. In the case of Santiago in the original story, going further and further out to sea after he had caught the fish ensured that by the time he made it back to shore, there would be nothing left of it.  In business we also have to know when to stop.

The bottom line is that striking out to explore new territory is an essential part of leadership.  However, the success of such exploration and the achievement of goals rely on one’s ability to marry leadership skill with management ability. Perhaps if Santiago had understood this, the outcome of his story might have been more positive.

What do you think?



Filed under Leadership, Management, organizational Development

23 responses to “Leadership Lessons from the Old Man and the Sea

  1. I agree, Gwyn.

    It is an important aspect in all our planning, building and coaching to know when to cut the line. This is a difficult step because of all the energy put into the first part of any project.

    We must be clear about our objectives, monitor our progress, slide through the loopholes, and be big enough to realize and accept that things may not work out the way we had hoped. Most often, this means a change in the final goal, but sometimes it means letting go of what we perceive to be a perfect finish.

    Great post, great analogy story.


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Martina ~ You bring up a good point and that is that goals are subject to change as we gather new information along the way. I wonder what would have happened if the old man had cut the line and gone back to the village to gather reinforcements after learning that there was indeed big fish to be had.
      Thanks poking around in this story with me 🙂

  2. Brilliant! Love the connections and leadership lessons you’ve woven together from this movie. Great post!

  3. @ohcsolutions

    Great post Gwyn.

    For me, this great story nicely captures the Vision vs Strategy debate. Obviously both are important; but l sometimes wonder if clear goals and vision are overrated?

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Ade ~ Like you, I think that both Vision and Strategy are necessary parts of moving forward. To me, having a long term vision and clear goals, makes building the strategy, executing tactics and making the decisions that go along with all of that, a little easier. I think we tend to talk about vision and goals much more often than about what it takes to realize them because it feels good to do so. However, goals and vision get reduced ( or elevated ) to dreams if we don’t build something more concrete that will show us the pathway to get there.
      Can you say more about goals and vision being overrated?

      • I guess my point applies more to organisational vision than vision as a skill. My comment is based on my experience with various organisations over the years.

        As am sure you know, the reality in most organisations, especially profit-making ones, is that, there is no direct link between the vision on paper and what really happens in these organisations.

        Obviously, most organisations are very good at highlighting (i.e. making up) the strong link and commitment to their vision. This is why l believe that the actual value of an organisational vision is largely dependent on how it is maximised (or not) by those in leadership (e.g. the old man in your story) as a guiding and driving force. Hence why l think that vision is overrated.

        Your post got me thinking.

      • Gwyn Teatro

        Thanks for coming back, Ade. I definitely agree that the value of an organisational vision is only as good as the degree to which it is used as a guiding and driving force. I’m thinking that the notion of being so guided gives purpose to the work and yet to your point there remain too many organizations that continue to spend time talking about their vision and hanging framed copies of it on the wall but yet not really using it as a tool for moving forward. Perhaps then it is not that organizations over-rate vision but that they under-rate it as a useful and powerful way of getting to success.
        Thank you for getting me thinking as well 🙂

  4. Gwyn: love your work here…I have the annoying habit of doing this with almost every movie I watch or book I read…need to take your lesson and write it down…will re-blog for sure

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Bill ~ Thank you very much! As I am not “in the trenches” any more, I find books and movies to be great resources for reflection and discussion about leadership. These posts are fun to write as well!

  5. Reblogged this on Mastermind Century Group and commented:
    Great work Gwyn, thank you

  6. Really excellent post. It’s a great story and a great reminder that we constantly need to be evaluating where we are and where we’re going. Sometimes we get so focused on a goal that we lose perspective and the next thing we know we’re out to sea and have no idea how we ended up there or how to get back.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Well said! If I may be allowed to mix metaphors for a minute, when we’re in the jungle sometimes we have to climb a tree to see what’s going on.
      thanks for that and for coming by!

  7. Terry Thomas

    HI Gwyn, As always, I enjoyed your story and the leadership parallels, as well as readers’ insightful comments. Due to recent events in my life, I see the old man’s individual struggle as well as the community response as important factors in this story. The elderly fisherman made a LIFE-lihood by fishing. Yet, instead of embracing him for surviving from the sea, a difficult job, the son’s father, and probably other community members, made him feel like a failure. There must have been life lessons the old man could have taught the young boy. However, the father prevented his son from learning these life lessons by considering the old man a failure, just because he did not catch fish for 84 days, though he probably caught fish for 84 years! Unfortunately, the old man focused on, and responded to, the attitudes and comments of others. Then, he did look like a failure, exhausting himself, and ending up with a fish skeleton, instead of a trophy fish! The story could have ended like a fairy tale if the community embraced the old man, asking how he lived his life making a living from the sea. Think of the wonderful stories the old man could have offered the younger generation, living a frugal, thrifty life, the value of hard work, and overcoming adversity. Instead, all the people were losers. The old man lost his self-esteem, the community lost out on the food from the fish because they did not help, and the society lost out by not valuing the old man’s life lessons. TV shows this week talk about obesity, bullying, economic crisis, and political controversy. “The Old Man and the Sea” can still teach us valuable lessons. Thanks for helping me find calmer seas and adjusting my sails! Bon voyage!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      And Thank you, Terry, for expanding the thinking on this story to include lessons not only in leadership but also in humanity.:)

  8. This is a wonderful story illustrating some very useful lessons Gwyn. Thank you. Like Terry, I too found the community engagement aspect interesting. Life can be very lonely and unfulfilling, even when successful, if the journey is made alone. How much more interesting the story may have been had the old man reached out to friends, family and the community – for all concerned (except perhaps for the fish!). Effective collaboration is such a powerful way forward – ask any ant.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Donna ~ I agree. And yet it seems despite much opportunity, human beings continue to choose competition over collaboration. Now, in the 21st century, I think the time to engage much more collaboratively with each other has come. Many of our livelihoods will depend on it. Perhaps we are ready now to take a lesson from the ants.
      Thank you for your insights and for taking the time to visit here.

  9. I would say to him, “Have a strategy!” You shouldn’t just want to do something. You should know how to do it, how to achieve your goal, and how to hang on to the success you’ve achieved.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Susan, Yes, as you succinctly point out knowing what we want is the beginning. Getting it requires a plan. Thanks for that!

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  12. Pingback: Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and Sea” @ Leadership Develpoment Carnival, hosted by Shri Tanmay Vora, in April 2012 « The world is too small? or Is it?

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