Leadership Lessons from the Old Man and the Sea

The end of summer is, for me, also a time of beginnings.  And, it is a time when many of us choose to refresh or re-affirm our goals and plans, whatever they may be.  This post, originally presented in March, 2012, uses a popular Hemingway story to illustrate the importance of doing just that.

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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.

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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.

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So, 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.

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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.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

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4 Comments

Filed under Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision

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

  1. I enjoyed reading your post Gwyn and you have made some interesting observations. I agree with your bottom line too. I would add that “every day is a fishing day, but not every day is a catching day”. By breaking through his comfort zone, Santiago shows persistence and seeks to “find a way”. After a long period of not achieving his desired outcome, he tests uncharted waters. Some would see him as unsuccessful in this endeavor. I think he clearly misjudged his resources but was not unsuccessful in that he continued to pursue his bold vision. This fresh attempt was a learning experience that made him a better fisherman, Santiago earned the villagers respect-and maybe even encouraged them to expand their own comfort zones. What would the next chapter bring? Perhaps a new sharing of vision and resources with the other fishermen that created valuable synergies? Would the whole village benefit in the future? As Hemingway said, “Any man’s life, told truly, is a novel.”

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Mark ~ Thanks for adding your excellent insights to this post. Yes! In spite of his failure, Santiago learned some things about fishing and about himself. And, as you say, he also had some opportunity to do things differently next time.

  2. Pingback: Life, difficulties and lessons… | Martina McGowan

  3. Pingback: Leadership Lessons from the Old Man and the Sea | You’re Not the Boss of Me | 4sct

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