The lighthouse, the captain and the manager

Some stories manage to get messages across much more effectively than long theories… During my training and personal coaching sessions, there is one I particularly like to tell: the one about the lighthouse and the captain. Some days the lighthouse is transformed into a wreck, but the moral of the story is the same, and it often makes it possible to overcome a good many problems…

Here is the story of the lighthouse and the captain. One misty morning, a fishing boat was heading back home, her nets full of fish. Worn out by a night on deck in the pouring rain, the captain is longing to be back on dry land to unload his catch. But when release is almost at hand, he sees another boat that he does not recognise in his way. Dismayed, he picks up his radio handset and asks the boat to move out of the way rapidly so as to avoid an otherwise inevitable collision:

– We are approaching fast, please divert your course East as quickly as possible.
– No, it’s you who should go round me to starboard
– Impossible, you are the one who needs to change your course.

Furious with exasperation and tiredness, the captain then fires off a broadside of curses worthy of Captain Haddock to demand that the damned boat move out of his way.
– But I can’t move, I’m the lighthouse keeper!

Whereupon, the people I’m coaching often smile at the end of my tale, without feeling in any way concerned by the eyesight problems or errors of judgement of my poor captain. But when I ask them whether they have ever been exasperated by the reluctance to change of their staff, of their service providers, or of their customers
with regard to a given problem, they quickly understand that the captain… is them.

When a situation does not improve rapidly, it is often because our starting analysis is not correct.


In other words, when the situation does not change despite repeated requests or demands for change, we need to wonder whether the obstacle can be moved at all, or whether, in spite of all of our efforts, it is doomed to remain stuck to its rock.

Instead of being annoyed with the others, we then need to accept that they are incapable of moving, and that we have to go round the obstacle instead of demanding that it disappear.



Each time a difficult situation cannot be sorted out as quickly as expected, a good manager should always start by wondering whether he or she is not an integral part of the problem, and whether his or her contacts are genuinely capable of sorting it out. That introspective questioning will enable him or her to become more agile in determining whether or not he or she should either avoid the problem, or else find means for setting the others in motion. He or she will thus be able to step back and see the bigger picture, to go round the obstacle to port or to starboard… and to reach the harbour safe and sound.

And how about you, have you ever been aware that it was you who should move rather than others?


By Virgil Benyayer