Alignement vs Heading

In this article, we will explore two words which clearly express a sense of “direction” in the contexts of sailing and leadership. However, the perspective that each provides is radically different. There is a clear distinction between the words Alignment and Heading. According to the context in which they are used, they directly impact the sense of purpose, the autonomy, the mastery, and therefore the drive and motivation of the crew or team members. The analogy and metaphors below will demonstrate how ALIGNEMENT supports “leadership”, while HEADING merely supports “management”.

When you sail a boat as when you steer a company forwards, you usually have a plan to help you navigate toward a destination or a port while overcoming or avoiding obstacles such as rocks. You start by drawing up a plan to define your course which in the below example is North 000°.




As you see on the above diagrams, there are external factors which are totally out of our control affecting the intended course. In sailing these are wind causing leeway (another metaphoric term to explore sometime), tidal flow which pushes the boat sideways, and magnetic deviation and declination which alters your compass reading. In short to go North into the port, the boat has to point North West to compensate for the external factors and kind of “crab” sideways to go to the port.


In the life of an organisation these external factors can be the market, staff absences, the competitor's advertising, exchange rates for international business, Covid and anything deriving from it, etc. Basically these are all things on which you do not have direct influence. As a consequence, you first need to be aware and accept these realities and secondly to take them into account in your further decisions and actions and most importantly, you have to communicate somehow with your crew/teams to provide them with directions. This is where you have 2 option, alignement or heading (or a combination of both).


What is the difference?


A HEADING is the compass reading defining which way the boat is pointing. It is an internal reference. Unfortunately, a heading does not take into account any of the external factors affecting the boat nor does it provide any indication regarding the boats position in the external reality. A helmsman who is given a heading, is unaware of the risks or opportunities as he is detached from the overall strategy (which was designed by someone else) to overcome the obstacles and reach the destination. He has no grasp of the consequences of his actions into the outside world. In order to steer the intended course, a manager (not a leader) will have given the helmsman a heading, applied some “systematic corrections” so as to set him on the right track. Ex: "Take a NNW heading (316°)", compensating the effect of deviation, variation, tidal flow and leeway (wind) at this particular date and time, based on where the boat is now. By holding the compass heading of 316 ° on this date and time, the boat should journey Northward along the intended course.


Sailing and running a company have another thing in common. They are not an exact science and a heading is not a sustainable "direction" in either situation. While the plan sounds true at a defined date and time, it is soon proved wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it is an impossible task (for any human or a machine) to stick to a constant heading even over a short distance, secondly the boat will move and deviate off the course due to ever changing external factors.


In addition to this, the helmsman will rapidly lose interest in the meaningless task of following a compass heading in a VUCA* environment of which he has no or little grasp! It’s like doing repetitive task losing sight its purpose. He’ll probably continue doing it until he is told otherwise. He may even get good at it and enjoy it for a short while. Then, he will most likely get bored staring at this compass and as he is not accountable for anything outside of this meaningless task, because he is unaware of why he is doing this anyway (see previous article - We are all in the same boat). When, finally, someone raises the alarm that rocks are close, he will probably be urgently micromanaged again, given a new heading (or internal goal) and probably be shouted at, for not seeing that he was sailing to close to the rocks or putting the organisation at risk. How unfair for this poor helmsman who will probably look for another job, helming for another organization ! Pity.


An ALIGNEMENT is a way to provide directions and monitor your course using external reference markers**, and which are easy to identify by all the crew/team, regardless of their position. In short, you can say to your helm’s man: “I want you to keep the church spire that you see in the distance, in line (or in alignment) with the light house marking the port entrance”. By these instructions, an alignment, the helmsman has a purpose and not a task. It enables his sense of mastery to helm in his own style, he may delegate to crew on deck to reset the sails according to the boat’s heading which is constantly changing. He has autonomy, he can make a difference by adding some comfort or speed, or extra security as he deems fit for a greater purpose. He can be creative and engage others. The task of helming becomes fulfilling, enabling connections with others and personal growth. In this scenario, the skipper can organize easy backup solutions for extra security and has a lot more time on his hands for himself and to plan further ahead in the future.


Everyone feels safer and engaged when the strategy can be communicated in simple words to a small team, providing a common sense of purpose.


By studying how the managers and team leaders in your organization talk to their teams, you can hear whether they are providing directions in the form heading (micro-management) or alignment (leadership). Listen for: What external markers are your managers referring to in their daily communications with their teams? How often have you been challenged by your employees or middle management regarding your current strategic markers? How relevant are the markers to each team? When the relevant markers change, how soon after do you hear conversations changing and discussing the new markers ?


We live in a world where purpose attracts talent. While speed affects us, goals are reached by teams and not individuals. We need safety to enhance creativity. People need to feel that they can contribute. CEO’s will become Chief Enabling Officers. More than ever, they need input from the actors in the field, their employees, their customers, their providers.


Providing ALIGNEMENT, allows the business to run safely for a determined period, fully engages all teams by involving their mastery and enables leaders to monitor progress and plan for the future.


Interestingly, we see a pattern here which is very similar to the implementation of OKR. Align Objectives to reach outcomes in the form of Key Results which reveal forward progress and are regularly revisited by entire teams using common reference points that are a result of a transformation or progress towards a common vision.


And let's not forget to align our actions with our values.


*VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complexe and Ambiguous

**a note for the sailors among my readers: using alignments obviously only works in sight of land and in reasonable conditions of visibility, however the analogy serves its purpose for this article.

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