I’ve often thought about leadership strength like a maritime anchor. Unrelenting, iron clad, and too heavy to move, the anchor secures a boat firmly in place, swayed only as far as its chain will allow. But as I observe the ever shifting sand of our society, I realize that the anchor, though strong and steadfast, isn’t the best picture of today’s leadership requirements.
For leaders in all walks of life—it’s no secret. We are living and leading in turbulent, changing, and often scary times. Just a sixty second glimpse of any major news network is enough to shake the foundation of any human being.
While it seems the only constant is change, as leaders, one thing will always remain unchanged. It is our first and foremost duty to be good stewards of the people entrusted to us. In whatever setting we’ve been placed, the legacy of our leadership is ultimately defined by how well we care for the people and resources placed under our control for a period of time.
The Anchor or the Keel?
As we navigate a 21st century filled with technology, rapid change, instant gratification, and diverse beliefs, allow me to offer a new picture of the kind of steady leadership we need in our stormy world. It’s an image of steadfast guidance I found, like the anchor, in a nautical place—on a sailboat.
Now, truth be told, I know how to swim, but I’m not a big fan of water. Especially choppy water filled with white-capped waves. But on this particular day I let myself get talked into venturing out from shore. I put on my brave face, I acted enthused, but I was scared to death!
It was a windy day—perfect for sailing, not for my nerves. As we pushed away from shore the wind quickly took hold and we found ourselves skipping across the water like a smooth stone thrown over the surface of a pond. As our voyage progressed I did everything I was told to do—pull this rope, crank that handle, adjust the sail—partially because I had no idea what I was doing, but namely because I didn’t want to die!
The scariest thing moment of the sail was when the boat rocked and leaned. I was hanging on for dear life, leaning back with all my weight, my head and shoulders nearly skimming the waters as we flew across the blue surface. But amazingly, no matter how far we leaned, we never capsized. We never turned over, we never flipped, we never toppled into the violence of the waves.
Why? How was that possible?
There was nothing visible on the boat that could’ve kept us right-side-up. Nothing that caught the eye that had the ability to secure the ship. But it was when we pulled the boat up out of the water that I learned the source of steadiness.
Under the boat was a deep, long, heavy fin that protruded down into the water called the keel. It acted as a counter balance—a safety weight—that opposed the shifting of the wind and waters. When I felt like we were going down, the keel balanced our vessel out. And when I felt like we were going to fly up in the air, the keel brought us back to equilibrium.
But perhaps the thing most amazing, yet powerful, thing about the keel is that it’s hidden from plain sight. It’s below the surface of the water. Boarding the boat, you don’t even know it’s there. But when the storm hits and the chaos engulfs the craft, this hidden feature keeps the boat stable and safe, even through treacherous turbulence.
It’s the keel that keeps a boat steady in the storm.
An anchor keeps a vessel on the shore or in the harbor. A keel accompanies the vessel into the waters, no matter how choppy. An anchor buries itself in the sand and prevents motion. A keel stays afloat with the boat and provides stability. An anchor is separated from its ship. A keel is inseparably and intimately connected to the ship’s hull.
As leaders in these times, we need a life’s keel. We need something that secures our identity as people, so that when the tempest strikes—our beliefs are challenged, our plans change, our team faces trial or tragedy—we don’t tip over and crash. But something that isn’t necessarily external or visible like a tattoo or a t-shirt. Something deep within us. Something that others maybe can’t put their finger on, but they can see a difference beneath the waters of our lives. They see how we conduct ourselves, despite the uncertainty all around, and ask: “Why isn’t he crumbling?” “How can she handle this adversity so well?” “What’s different about them?”
So what’s your keel?
I’ve sought leadership steadiness in a variety of places—books, podcasts, mentors, conferences, trainings, my own self-confidence—but I’ve only found one thing that always accompanies me in choppy water, always stays afloat and provides stability, and that is inseparably and intimately connected to my life. My leadership keel is Jesus.
2 Timothy 3: 14-15 (NLT) speaks of the source of steadiness that we can find in the eternal keel of Christ:
“But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the Holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus.”
Steady, even-keeled leadership is simply about being “faithful to the things you have been taught” in any and every situation. Times may change, but timeless values do not. And timeless leadership values—sacrificial love, selfless service, and confident humility—find their origin in the wisdom of the Holy Scriptures, where Jesus exemplified a life lived by these tenets.
Leadership steadiness is peace in the midst of pressure. It is clarity in the throes of chaos. And it is possible for leaders in today’s turbulent world when we fasten our life’s vessel to the lasting keel of Christ. He is our lasting steadiness in any storm.
From his earliest days, Tim Hiller’s story consisted of three things: A boy, a ball, and a dream. The boy with a ball began chasing his dream by dodging imaginary defenders in his parents’ backyard and cutting out pictures from Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine. The pursuit of his dream continued through the ranks and record books of the Orrville High School and Western Michigan University football programs, where Tim re-wrote the standards in virtually every major passing category. And his dream culminated in the National Football League, where Tim spent time with four teams, primarily the Indianapolis Colts.