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.

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