Communication, or ‘The Art of Moving Boats’


I had a discussion with a senior executive recently who was bemoaning the fact that people in his organisation were paying no attention to a recent internal policy change.  He had told them about it and it was posted on the intranet but the message was just not getting through! He felt he had done all he could to communicate the change.

It caused me to reflect on a presentation by Ivan Deveson, I organised for a group of senior executives a number of years ago, which dealt with the responsibility of leaders and in part with communication.

Ivan Deveson, AO has had a distinguished career including roles as CEO for Nissan Australia, Chairman of the Seven Network and Lord Mayor of Melbourne.

As Ivan stomped around the floor at the meeting, in a white shirt and dark grey slacks held up by bright red braces, he rather growled at the assembled executives impressing on them their responsibility for communication.

Ivan told the story of a wharfie at the docks given the job of moving a large boat along the jetty.  The foreman pointed to the boat and said to the wharfie, “I want you to move the boat along the wharf to the next berth.”

The wharfie duly untied the stern of the boat from the wharf and then grabbing the bow rope pulled with all of his might.  He pulled and pulled to no avail.  The wharfie rested a little to regain his strength and then pulled and pulled again.  The boat didn’t budge.  Next the wharfie got another wharfie to help him but despite their best efforts the boat wouldn’t move.

The wharfie went back to the foreman and said “It’s no good, I’ve tried but the boat won’t move!”

The foreman responded, “It’s because you haven’t effectively communicated to the boat where you want it to go.  Perhaps try using even more people to help you, or use a method the boat understands and get a tug boat to help move it.  You have to keep trying until you’ve found a way to tell the boat what you want it to do.”

A simple little parable but one that illustrates an important lesson.  When, as a leader, you need to move people in a certain direction you have to find the right way to communicate your message, one that reaches your audience and that they understand.  It’s not good enough to say I have tried but they won’t listen.  If one medium doesn’t work try until you find one that does.  That may also involve engaging many others in helping communicate the message to achieve your goal.

Photo: Antlio/

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