The Secret To Staying Afloat


How does a leader stay afloat in the high seas of a busy life? The answer is in the Plimsoll Line.

The Plimsoll Line

Samuel Plimsoll was a 19th century British politician and social reformer. His burning cause was the plight of merchant seamen. In his day hundreds if not thousands of sailors were lost at sea each year. The reason? Unscrupulous owners were overloading their ships.

Plimsoll was relentless in his efforts to protect the sailors. He published a paper in 1872 entitled, Our Seamen. In it, he chronicled the problem of merchant shipping and offered a solution. A Royal Commission was appointed to study the issue. Finally, in 1876, British Parliament established the Merchant Shipping Act, a government bill that required all ships to have a line painted around their hulls.

Here is how it worked. As freight was being loaded onto the boat, the vessel naturally sank lower into the water. But when the water reached the "Plimsoll line" the loading had to stop. Dockhands knew the ship could carry no more weight without placing the ships' crew and cargo in danger.

Plimsoll's argument was based on a simple premise: a ship has limits to the load it can carry.

Leaders need a Plimsoll Line

Leaders are like ships. They have limits to the loads they can carry too. Paul understood this. Notice his request while sitting in a cold prison cell:

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 2 Timothy 4:13 ESV

Paul recognized his limitations. When it got cold, he got a coat. This is a simple lesson, but easily violated. Leaders need to understand their limits: physical, emotional, and relational.

When leaders ignore these limits by stacking more and more responsibilities on the deck of their lives, they put themselves and their cause in jeopardy. We see this truth illustrated in the life of John Adams. In the early days of our nation's fight for independence, Adams' responsibilities and pace were wearing him down. David McCullough notes the impact:

By late July it has been six months since [John Adams] and Joseph Bass had set off in the snow from Braintree, and the effect of the work, and unrelieved pressure, of too little sleep, no exercise, and increasing worries over [Abigail], had caught up with him. In fact, the whole Massachusetts delegation was in a bad way. Elbridge Gerry, sick and exhausted, had already departed for home. John Hancock was beset by gout. Robert Treat Paine, racked by a cough, seldom appeared in Congress. Samuel Adams was "completely worn out."

On July 25, Adams addressed a letter to James Warren, Speaker of the General Court, about a leave of absence: "My face is grown pale, my eyes weak and inflamed, my nerves tremulous, my mind as weak as water." He suffered "feverous heats by day and sweats by night," an infallible symptom, he was sure, of an approaching collapse. "I know better than anybody what my constitution will bear and what it will not," he told Warren, "and you may depend upon it, I have already tempted it beyond prudence and safety."[1]

Leaders who sail out of the harbor ignoring their limitations, put themselves at risk. What is more, they also put their team, the people they lead, and their cause at risk. Adams was wise enough to recognize that he was perilously close to capsizing.

A Plimsoll Line is based on capacities and limitations

Leaders draw their Plimsoll Lines based on a thorough understanding of their capacities and limitations. Both need careful attention.

Exodus 18 records a pivotal moment in the life of Moses and a significant lesson about capacities and limitations. The nation of Israel had recently escaped from Egypt when Jethro appeared. Jethro was Moses' father-in-law. He could see that Moses was overloaded and in danger of capsizing. The advice he gives forms the basis for some principles that are essential for leadership effectiveness.

 13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses' father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, "What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?" 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, "Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws."

17 Moses' father-in-law said to him, "What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.

23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace."

Jethro's advice forms the basis for four principles about leadership and limits:

1. No leader has the capacity to do it all.

"You and the people will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone." Exodus 18:18

Moses was a great leader, but not great enough to do the work by himself. Leadership, by definition, is an influencing relationship between leaders and followers. Leaders and followers need each other. When it comes to leadership, Superman is a myth. Are you trying to be a superhero? God has not called you to that role.

2. Leaders have differing capacities.

"Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens." Exodus 18:21

Christian leaders are equal before God, but God does not equally equip all leaders. Some leaders have greater capacities than others. Jethro recognized that there are leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.

Leaders that understand and embrace the principle of differing capacities will find more joy in their leadership. Additionally, they will experience less pride and jealousy. Why? Because they embrace the fact that God has given some leaders the capacity to do more and lead better (see Romans 12:3-8)

3. It is the leader's job to assess his/her capacities and limitations.

"For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you." Romans 12:3

Moses was responsible to assess his own leadership and to asses the capabilities of others. You must do this too. I have written about this in the post: How To Take A Leadership Inventory. Are you being honest about your capacities and limitations?

 4. Living within our limits is a sign of obedience, not weakness.

"It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep." Psalm 127:2 ESV

You are not a production machine. God does not want you to burn the candle at both ends. In fact, it is vanity to do so. God provides sleep to renew you, and sabbath to restore you. You are a human being not just a human doing.

Leaders who understand capacities and limitations--their own and others--experience the benefits of Jethro's organizational promise: If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied. Exodus 18:23 NIV

Is your ship overloaded?

When a ship has a Plimsoll Line painted across its hull, it is easy to recognize when it is overloaded. What are the signs when leaders are overloaded?

  1. Fatigue and physical breakdown Jethro said, You and the people will certainly wear yourselves out (Exodus 18:18). Dark circles, constant fatigue, and sickness plague the overloaded leader.
  2. Cowardice Vince Lombardi quipped, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." It does! Fears and anxieties increase as we exceed our physical capacity.
  3. Living with a dark cloud Joylessness is a sign of a burdened life. Jack Welch calls this the "Everyone's-happy-but-me syndrome." Think about the sunny disposition you exhibit when you are on vacation. If you haven't experienced that since your last vacation, you are probably overloaded.
  4. Ineffectiveness Disorganization, a series of missed deadlines, and sub-par work are signs that there may be too many crates of cargo on your deck.
  5. Paralysis When the "To Do" list become too daunting, lethargy and feelings of being overwhelmed take over. We lose our momentum and get stuck in the mud. Paralysis replaces action.
  6. Relationships that are suffering Leaders live in the tension of task and relationship. They must simultaneously pay attention to the task and care for the people who help tackle the task. Overloaded leaders put tasks before relationships.
  7. Judgmental attitude Leaders who are working at a feverish pace often expect the same of others: "I'm working like crazy! Why isn't she?" Comparison and judgmental attitudes can be signs of an overloaded life.

 Are there any signs of overload present in your life and leadership?

Offloading cargo to lighten the load

If your ship is sinking dangerously deep, it is time to lighten the load. Here are four questions you must ask yourself. Take your time thinking through them. You cannot rush this process.

1. What is weighing you down?

Take a look at the deck of the ship that is your life. What extra cargo are you carrying? Perhaps it is leading your organization through a new season, raising additional capital, the birth of a child, caring for an aging family member, or the loss of a staff member that is temporarily increasing your load. Even good things can weigh us down and cause to capsize if we are not careful. Think about the extra "cargo" that you are carrying right now. Write it down:




2. Why are you carrying it?

We all carry extra loads at times. Our challenge is in assessing the Why. Why are we taking on the additional cargo? Our motives can be a mixed bag -- at times altruistic and God-honoring, at times driven by fear and pride. Do some prayerful motive assessment. You can use the ideas below to kick-start your thought process. Write down the "why/s" below:

  1. Legitimate season of intensity: I am doing this because it is necessary for this season of life.
  2. Image management: I am doing this because it makes me look good.
  3. Cowardice: I am doing this because I was afraid to say, "No."
  4. Mismanaged ship: I am doing this because I have lost control of my time.
  5. Priorities: I am doing this because I have lost sight of my priorities.
  6. Priorities: I am doing this because it is in keeping with my priorities.
  7. Service: I am doing this because I legitimately want to serve and help.




3. How can you lighten the load?

If the load you are carrying is keeping you from being your best for God, prayerfully evaluate where you need to unload some cargo. What needs to go? Answering these questions may help you

  • What has God designed you for? Matthew Kelly said, "When we say yes to stuff that’s not good for us, we miss out on the stuff that God designed just for us." Think about how God has wired you. How does that impact what cargo you will remove from your deck?
  • Who do you want to be?I heard Nedo Qubein say, "Most people have a To Do list. How many have a To Be list?" Thinking about who we want to be can greatly impact what we will and will not do. What kind of leader do you want to be for God?
  • What needs to go? Qubein has also said, "You can’t have a To Be list w/o a Stop Doing list." Leaders must be willing to carefully, lovingly, and responsibly eliminate and delegate tasks and responsibilities. We do this for own health, for the betterment of others, and for the sake of leading at our best for God. What needs to go? To whom can you delegate or share the load? _____________________________________________________________________________

4. What will I gain by offloading some responsibilities?

We can be so engrossed in our responsibilities and tasks that we lose sight of what our lives and leadership could be were we not so overloaded. Describe what you would gain were you to remove some of the "cargo" from the deck of your ship?




It's your ship

God has not called you to lead only to see your ship capsize and lie on the bottom of the sea. Paying attention to your Plimsoll Line will help you stay afloat even in the high seas of a busy life of leadership.


More on self-leadership from The Leader's Life & Work: If you are looking to e are examining three essential aspects of self-leadership: recognizing capacities, establishing replenishment strategies, and evaluating self-leadership using a time-tested assessment tool.


[1] David McCullough, John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2001. Page 144.