An endeavor that goes belly-up after a big launch is a failure, a disaster. That’s exactly what happened to the Vasa, envisioned to be the grandest ship in Sweden’s fleet, because it lacked the proper balance. In August 1628, the Vasabegan her maiden voyage in a calm harbor. But as soon as the ship emerged from the city’s lee, a gust of wind filled its sails. The ship heeled sharply. With the next gust, open gun ports took in water. The Vasa sank only 400 feet from shore.
Today’s leaders often must navigate unpredictable seas. The many demands on a leader’s time vie for priority, including the need to live as a human being outside one’s leadership role. Thus, many leaders find themselves out of balance with their personal values and priorities.
Leaders will agree they need more balance. But most leaders find this elusive — they strike a balance for a moment or a day or a week, until the next crisis hits, which it inevitably does. Balance begins to sound like a platitude, a “nice to have” that doesn’t jibe with reality.
The tool leaders need to find balance is ballast. Ballast is a heavy substance that can be moved around to help maintain equilibrium. Ballast, when well-designed, brings stability and control to a ship. Its genius is in its flexibility — a crew can move ballast depending on the challenges they currently face.
Many factors led to the Vasa’s early and expensive demise. The top-heavy ship was structurally flawed. And there was no chance of overcoming this problem since she also carried insufficient ballast. This left her with little fortitude for her real-world voyage into the winds and sea. Each person has to find their own source of ballast. It’s the attention you devote to the most important areas in your life — the actions you take to create stability in the midst of turbulent seas.
Here are three steps to add ballast to your vessel:
1. Identify what’s at your core. Ballast sits in the belly of the ship below the waterline thus lowering the center of balance. If you stabilize this region, you stabilize the entire ship. What does stability look like for you? Identify the key values — intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual — that guide your work and life — the “four corners of your core.”
2. Distribute the ballast based on need. It is important that your ballast remains stable during a storm. A crew maintains this stability by dispersing the ballast to port, starboard, bow, and stern depending on changing conditions. Learn where you need to move ballast around the corners of your core.
Sam, a manager at a non-profit, had been heads down on a project for three straight months. To cope, he had thrown his regular health regime overboard. After the project ended, he had trouble regaining his energy. He realized that he needed to shift some of his ballast from the intellectual to the physical corner. He restarted his morning runs and that was all it took. Where you place ballast is a personal choice. When deciding where to disperse it, consider your internal desires, the external environment, and your top priority goal. In Sam’s case, he realized that when he was low on energy, it was hard for him to pay attention to his family or his job.
3. Stack ballast where you can. If you’re struggling to find balance, you are already tight on time. You may not be able to have a date-night, complete an hour-long workout, and practice Swedish because you just relocated to Scandinavia, all in discrete chunks of time in a single day. However, you and your partner might be able to run together while egging each other on in Swedish. Now you’ve managed to simultaneously disperse ballast in the emotional, physical, and intellectual corners of your core.
Each of us has turbulent situations to navigate through work and life. When you are vigilant about your conditions you can apportion your ballast accordingly. What adjustments can you make that will bring stability to your core?
This article originally appeared at hbr.org