Wanted: Boat Rockers--Respected by Some, Scorned by Others.

There are boats to rock, and boat rockers needed to rock them. Are you one of them?

Avoiding questioning existing conditions in a dynamic, changing world is a recipe for mediocrity if not disaster, but who has the moxy to ask the obvious?

Pay, fame or thanks, if any, varies, and while you’ll be respected by some, others will scorn you for disturbing their status quo.

We think of people like Rand Paul or Martin Luther King, Jr. as boat rockers but people who rock boats can come in a variety of guises; Ellen Pao for taking on the male-dominated venture capital world or  Sheryl Sandberg, in a more nuanced way, pointing out that women are missing at the business top and that men need to speak up in order for that to happen, are boat rockers as well.

No application is required to be one, just the courage of your conviction and the willingness to express it. Boat rocking may be for the courageous or foolish but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. You may change the world but your son may not get invited to somebody’s 6th grade birthday party whose mother you pissed off.

What about people who rock boats just to make waves? They’re not boat rockers, they’re called “shit stirrers.”

This month Major League Baseball celebrated the legacy of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the formerly all-white big leagues when he stepped on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers 66 years ago. A true American hero, Robinson blazed a trail as he broke the “color line.” He opened doors to others and helped accelerate the demise of the shameful practice of racial segregation in baseball.

But was he a boat rocker? Nope. Statement maker? Yes.

The real boat rocker for Robinson’s arrival was the man behind the scenes, Dodgers’s general manager Branch Rickey. While the Dodger’s GM had multiple motives – ending Jim Crow segregation practices and opening the game to a broader base of the population so the Dodgers could make more money  -  Rickey dared to rock the boat before anyone else in the game.

In the 1980′s, early in my career, I worked for Dominc Ciarfalia, the head of HR for McKesson’s large bottled water business. Dominic was a good guy, a savvy professional, and someone who rocked boats in his own understated way. The water companies in LA at the time held periodic trade meetings at Los Angeles’ Jonathan Club, the area’s most prominent business club. The club only admitted white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males as members and excluded women, people of color and Jews. Exceptions were made for meetings, but only on a designated floor.

In an “intimate setting” of 50+ people around one of those big square-shaped conference table set-ups you see on TV, Dominic – knowing what my answer would be – asked if everyone was comfortable continuing to hold meetings at the club. “No,” I responded across the table, “given the HR role I hold, as well my personal beliefs around discrimination.” Linda Rush, my very able colleague thankfully played ally and chimed in with a “I’m not comfortable either.

Dominic, the boat rocker, had made his point. The meetings moved to another location that had open membership. The Jonathan Club later opened up its membership to everyone. Did Dominic have anything to do with it? Who knows; change happened.

While sometimes, as Bryan Stevenson recently wrote, it’s speaking up while everyone else is silent, there are other ways to rock boats. Sometimes it’s that person in the background – like the Branch Rickey and Dominic Ciarfalia’s of the world – setting things in motion that will make waves that rock the largest of boats.

It might be the school administrator, who realizes that the private grade school that’s not-so-diverse in a metropolitan area that’s highly diverse is a school on a path to irrelevance (or looking like the old Jonathan Club), and makes changes that will rock boats and lead to a better school. It might be that investor in a company who dares to knock on the boardroom door who wonders why the CEO is getting whacked. It might also be someone like Bastian Lehman, a successful serial entrepreneur whose mantra, “I have no respect for the status quo,” could be a tagline for boat rockers.

Or it might be you, simply saying “no mas” and working to make changes for the better.

Writer Rick Riordan in the Kane Chronicles series proposes that the length of the shadow you leave – your legacy – is determined by the contributions and mark you’ve left in world.

So be bold and cast a long shadow! There are boats that need rocking around you.

Guest author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better.

Row Boat image courtesy of Shutterstock

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