Sailing! An interesting tack on achieving Sustainability

My extended visit to British Columbia has enabled me to enjoy many of the blessings of the Vancouver Island. It is a place of tourism, boating and every sort of adventure, caving, sailing, kayaking, swimming, crabbing, whale watching, you name it. An island paradise to be sure. That having been said, there is a tremendous amount of traffic and obvious contributions to the CO2 levels which impact climate. After having taken part in some of these adventures, I have to ask myself, besides paying for carbon offsets, what would actually get me, never mind anyone else, to stop traveling up and down island between my parents home, my sisters homes and the many other points of interest the island has to offer. No question that, at least in my family, we are driving smaller 4 cylinder cars thus reducing fuel consumption over larger vehicles and we drive slightly older cars (my parents car is a 1992). Maintaining vehicles extends their life and reduces manufacturing and resource requirements. But even with many smaller cars on the road, their is a pollution problem in certain congested spots especially along Highways 1 and 17 and, even with the tremendous number of trees, the island traffic still contributes to the global CO2 problems.

It’s fairly clear that people are just not ready to give up their holidays, their retirement freedoms or their independent modes of transportation. Even those of us who are aware of the severe issues have difficulty giving up our carbon habit. A book called “Right Relationship” by Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver discusses how we have, for the most part, failed to maintain a right relationship with the planet and suggests how we might re-establish such relationships. But if we are going to maintain “Right Relationship” with our planet while maintaining “Right Relationship” with our friends and our families (who often live some distance from us) and our own sense of well-being which requires exercising some level of freedom, we will need to take a different “tack” than just sitting at home. For those not familiar with this use of the word “tack” it is a method used by sailors when sailing against the wind, whereby they zigzag diagonally across the line of the opposing wind in order to reach their up-wind destination. Ironically, the other way of going up-wind is to motor. Even though sailboats for the most part are powered by the wind, most have on-board diesel motors for travelling in harbors where using wind power is unreliable. Yet another source of CO2.

If we imagine Sustainability as our up-wind destination (i.e. the wind of our personal freedoms seems to blow in the opposite direction). What are the “tacks” we might take in order to reach our desired destination? We want to arrive at a place where we are in “Right Relationship” with our planet and where we have the freedoms we desire. We want to get their without having to motor all the way and creating a problem for the planet and for future generations.

One thing that sailors learn is that if they have to tack, it will also take longer to arrive at the destination. If you’re a business owner or someone who would like your business to be more sustainable, ask yourself some questions:

What would it mean for a company, a city or any service or manufacturing industry to find a “tack” that takes them to their sustainable destination without motoring?

It might imply slowing down and it might also imply using more manpower and technology. Sailboats use a lot of technology in the design of their hull, their materials, their sails, and in their navigation systems. They also use solar powered fans and panels or wind generators for charging their batteries. But sailors who rely on the wind must still develop patience and find serenity in stillness. If the wind stops blowing, sometimes they just wait and enjoy the view. True, if they have no food on-board, they may not have a choice other than motoring, but they prepare for these contingencies by stocking up and many also learn to fish so they can live along the way.

What are the lessons for business leaders? As a business leader, imagine that you have to plan to survive for 1 day without oil (metaphorically: fully under sail).

  • What preparations might you make?
  • What are the things you would need to store up if you were to take a small leg of the trip under sail?
  • What new navigational skills would you need to learn? 
  • What heading would you take?
  • What kinds of attitudes might you need to adopt in your organization and leadership styles that would help you to relax with the potentially slower pace of progress and yet still find ways to compete?
  • What might you do with the stillness when the winds of sales disappear?
  • Who would you be competing against?
  • Would your market change?
  • How might you elicit support and “wind power” from your market, your customers and competitors?
  • How might you learn to ”enjoy the journey”, and not be entirely focused on the destination?

If we where all metaphorical sailors in our businesses (i.e. powered by wind or solar) how might we share the ride with others who know less about sailing but would like to learn? After all, once under sail, there is very little cost to keep going.

Don’t get me wrong, sailing is expensive. Similarly, moving towards sustainable solutions costs money in the beginning and it may potentially represent a tremendousshift in pace. But if we do it correctly, that shift in pace will be a welcome one. One of the most amazing parts of the island culture is that it takes the time to enjoy life and the bounties of nature, music, arts and creativity. From that perspective alone, it has something to teach company leaders.

What is one “tack” any company or organization can take as a starting point to becoming more sustainable? Hire a CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer)! Alternatively, and here’s a little shameless self-promotion for a good cause, you can outsource the CSO function by hiring a company like HBI Leadership (and btw, I’m now supporting and speaking to mainland BC and Vancouver Island businesses and organizations) where experience with leadership development and an understanding of sustainability already exists.

Enjoy your summer,

Garth Schmalenberg

Please share any thoughts or ideas from this article with friends, colleagues or other business/organizational leaders that might benefit from insights on Sustainability.

Comments are closed.