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Sailing as a Metaphor for Business and Living Well

Feb 06, 2017

As a metaphor for managing a business, yacht racing can be very helpful. Both share common, fundamental elements: a team of people using speed, tactics, strategy, timing and multiple resources to reach a destination and achieve a goal while facing a fleet of opponents.

Yacht racing is different from all other types of racing because each of the boats in the race sails a unique course. The race—whether it is a Wednesday night beer can race, a multi-day regatta or a race across an ocean—has a defined beginning and end, but in between, each boat can sail a widely different route and distance. A business may have a defined beginning and a goal, but its race is on-going and often over multiple racecourses simultaneously.

The environment that each operates in is constantly changing—the physical environment of wind, waves and weather; the competitive environment; and the economic and regulatory environment. Both the business owner and boat skipper must exercise choice and control over some elements and adjust to those elements over which they have no control. Good business managers, like good sailors anticipate when conditions are about to change. The skipper best able to anticipate changing conditions and effectively adjust for them is the one that comes out ahead.

Company and crew each have to develop a short-term strategy for each individual race, a medium-term strategy for a weekend regatta, and a long-term strategy for the entire season of racing. Without a clearly articulated strategy, a boat or business merely reacts to whatever comes along.

Businesses and race boats also require leadership, teamwork and rapid decision-making to be successful. Innovative problem-solving, clear goals and effective communications are also necessary.

Speed alone will not win the race if the wrong strategic choice is made, or if the boat or business sails in the wrong direction. And perfect strategy and tactics cannot overcome slow speed. Winning requires a mastery of all these elements: preparation, strategy, boat handling, speed and tactics.