A Lesson For Team Leaders From The Ship Of Theseus

by  Sean Glaze  |  Team Dynamics
A Lesson For Team Leaders From The Ship Of Theseus

If you are leading a team in any industry, you are likely constantly in search of actionable ideas that will help you to strengthen your culture and inspire better teamwork among your staff.

I would like to share an idea from nearly 2,000 years ago that has surprising relevance today.

The Greek philosopher Plutarch, somewhere around 100 AD, described the mythical Ship of Theseus in his writings this way:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved…for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not.”

For philosophers, the story about replacing those timbers raises a significant question. Once Theseus’s ship has had all the individual boards and mast and other parts replaced one-by-one, is it truly still the same ship or a different ship altogether?

If you are a philosopher, you can keep yourself busy in conversation and discussion for hours arguing the points of each perspective.

Most of us aren’t philosophers, and you are likely reading this article looking to find a relevant takeaway that you can somehow apply to your situation to improve the effectiveness of your team.

Thankfully, there is a relevant application of Theseus’s Ship and it was inspired by a book I read by Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset. In her book, Dweck suggests that people either have a fixed mindset – they are what they are and that is their identity, or a growth mindset – they are constantly in a state of becoming and making an effort to grow and improve.

For fans of Dweck’s work, I likely did a poor job of summarizing her main premise – but the point is that we are, according to our own self-image, either static or dynamic. As a leader, that is an incredibly important insight.

Many of the people walking the halls of your building are stuck believing that they just are who they are – and like the boards on Theseus’s Ship, they will continue to sail and endure storms and eventually will see their skills or performance begin to deteriorate. As a leader it is your job to provide opportunities for growth and inspire them to renew themselves.

I have written before that to create unity, a leader must connect his people to TWO things – a compelling common goal, and each other. You absolutely need to have a worthwhile destination and purpose, and you cannot neglect to invest time in team building events and encouraging your team to forge stronger and deeper personal relationships.

But once your team has committed to a clear goal and has become connected to and aware of their teammates skills and personalities, your job as a leader begins to shift. AFTER connecting your people to a goal and each other, your priority should be to begin replacing boards!

Your competitive advantage is found in ongoing and consistent professional and personal development of the people on your team. A culture of continuous improvement begins with everyone on your team recognizing the importance of a growth mindset.

The story of Theseus’s Ship is tremendously important to strong leaders – because your people are the ships that your organization’s success is depending on. And ships are always in need of repair and improvements. Ask anyone who owns a boat.

Never allow your people to feel or think or say that that’s just how I am. We are all in a constant state of becoming. That is the key takeaway from Dweck’s work. We have the ability, with effort and intention, to grow and improve and change over time.

There is a funny and incredibly insightful story about an administrator who questioned the money and time being invested in professional development in his department. So he goes to the CEO and asks, in sincere concern for the company’s future, “what if we spend all these resources on developing our people, and then they leave to go work for our competitors?”

The wise CEO responded simply: “We should not be concerned that they might grow and improve, and then leave us – we should be concerned that they might remain exactly as they are, and grow or improve, and choose to stay.”

Theseus knew that old, rotten, broken-down boards needed to be replaced if his ship was going to remain fast, safe, and competitive.

Strong leaders know the same insight applies to their people.

Who on your team has a few boards that need to be replaced? Who on your team would benefit from the motivating experience of adding a new skillset or being given an opportunity to improve his or her resume with a relevant professional development workshop or certification?

Here are two things you can do right now to begin working to improve your ships:

  1. Identify who on your team needs to have boards replaced.

    • Consider making a list of what you perceive as individual needs on your team
    • Consider bringing in each person and asking for their desired areas of growth
    • Consider asking upper management who they would like to focus on receiving which skills or experiences over the coming year for succession planning
    • Consider what needs your office will have in the future and finding people whose personalities and interests best fit those areas of opportunity.
  2. Provide opportunities for them to get those new boards.

    • Maybe that means sharing a new book for your team to read together
    • Maybe that means sending someone to a conference
    • Maybe that means scheduling a team building event or workshop
    • Maybe that means providing online classes for specific skills
    • Maybe that means paying for someone to get an advanced degree
    • Maybe that means you hosting a lunch and learn for small groups each week.

Whatever your budget and imagination and circumstances would allow, the key is that you find ways to grow your people. Help them to get excited about their own development, and you will find them far more invested in helping to accomplish your company’s goals.

Being a great leader begins with connecting your people with a compelling common goal and then providing opportunities for them to strengthen their relationships. The rest of the process is described more fully in my book, Rapid Teamwork, which uses the acronym GREAT to share the five essential steps for building a great team.

Theseus knew to focus on what so many leaders neglect – maintaining employee engagement and loyalty by growing and developing them as individual contributors.

Wise leaders are replacing their own boards and improving themselves every day – and the wisest are working to help their people do the same.

Have you been part of a team which needed its boards to be replaced? Tell me about it in the comments!
Photo Credit: Fotolia Elenarts

About The Author

Articles By sean-glaze
Sean helps smart organizations improve teamwork, boost morale, and create a high-performance culture with fun team building events, entertaining keynotes, and customized workshops  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Al Watts  |  25 Nov 2015  |  Reply

‘Excellent points, and as a sailor I love the analogy! As we embark on any venture, we need to ensure that we have both a seaworthy vessel (organization) and competent captain (leader.) Regularly checking for those boards that need replacing or upgrading is essential. You might enjoy my book with more nautical analogies:

Joseph Hamlett  |  25 Nov 2015  |  Reply

In a previous job I worked for a manager that understood the importance of strengthening employee relationships. He did many of the things that you spoke of in your article; he had monthly luncheons with his leadership team, he held one on ones with each team member and he asked each member what their short and long term goals were. The results of these relationship building activities were evident throughout the department not only in his leadership team, but in their direct reports as well. He created an environment that promoted growth and development for all employees, which in-turn led to increased performance by the entire department.

Sean Glaze  |  25 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Joe –

Really appreciate the comment and examples from your previous manager.
As you said, it is often difficult to quantify the impact of these activities, but the feeling and positive impact of one-on-one meetings to encourage growth and other relationship building efforts truly does have a significant impact on organizational culture.

John E. Smith  |  25 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Sean – great post and I love the metaphor of the wooden ship:)

I have not yet read Dweck’s book. It WAS number 2 in my reading pile, but just edged past Peter Block into the pole position, based on your reminder that she has a very useful model to share with us.

You masterfully applied the philosophical question to teams and organizations. For that, we should thank you because the points about developing ourselves and others, along with the need to understand that change is not an event, but a continual dynamic, are important and need to be continually reinforced.

I did go off on a rabbit trail about whether something remains what it is, when the component parts change. In the case of the boat, the function and form appears to remain the same, while the parts change. I was reminded of how we regularly update, repair, and replace the parts of our houses, while maintaining the basic function and form of that house.

We would probably not even stop to consider whether a house with new siding was still “Our House”. Nothing much to do with leadership, but I found it interesting to ponder:).

As always, appreciate your thoughtful and useful contributions.


Sean Glaze  |  25 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Thanks, John –

Always enjoy your comments…
Whether it is your house or your employee, change is constant and ongoing – so the person you work with is (hopefully) not the same person you might have hired years before… if their boards have been upgraded over that time…

karamo sillah  |  28 Nov 2015  |  Reply

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