Each year the Brimstone team sets a goal of reaching our namesake island, five acres of uninhabited beach, rock, and field at 44′ 01″ latitude, 68′ 46″ longitude. It is 15 miles from the mainland in Penobscot Bay, on the edge of the open Atlantic. This is a special place for the local lobstermen and their families, reserved for picnics and contemplative walks on off days, eyes down looking for the perfect smooth black rocks — brimstones — on the beach, eyes up to scan the unbroken horizon in the east.
Brimstone Island is not far from the bigger island of Vinalhaven, but it’s hard to get to. Surrounded by ledges, it has a difficult “holding ground” for boats trying to anchor. It takes desire, effort, and considerable skill to get there. Access is earned: No one gets there by accident.
Like many aspirations that surface at the turn of the year, reaching our special island doesn’t always happen. But last year it did. Twenty of us ventured in two lobster boats across the bay, into the fog. Touching base.
Many of us have a shared history in this part of the world, living on islands, feeling the isolation, being close to the elements. For other team members it was a new experience. No matter. The simplicity, the starkness, the beauty are easily relatable, universal attractions. So is the sense of achievement everyone feels when putting their feet down in a sought-after location that requires some determination — a mountain top, a remote island, a favorite beach, a pristine forest. Such efforts deliver connections and rewards that resonate in each of us. It feels good to get there, or in some cases, get back there, in part because it’s not easy to do. The goal is attained only by negotiating the obstacles — in our case lobster pots and fog — but our biggest impediment is making an adequate window of time for keeping this commitment.
The metaphors for our Brimstone work with leadership teams are with us throughout this expedition. Moving off the dock on a clear, calm day with the familiar activity of the harbor around us, within 30 minutes — and not halfway to our destination — we are enveloped in thick fog, with all familiarity stripped away. Islands of rock and pine arise suddenly from the mist — offering some welcome navigational aid. The sound of a motor at a distance doesn’t seem to come from any one direction. We sense the peril of inattention, the need for constant vigilance and adjustment. Fog is disorienting. It’s hard to go straight. It’s hard to know where sound is coming from. Are we in the middle of something or on the edge? Just starting or almost through it? We know there are things to run into, but we can’t see them. We question what we see. We tap the compass to make sure it’s not stuck . . . . “That can’t be right, we’re supposed to go that way.” Sounds like a leadership team doing strategy work . . .
To succeed in either endeavor — setting strategy or plotting a course in the fog — we need similar things: to trust our instincts and experience, keep at bay our skepticism and discomfort, verify with our data and instruments, and keep our resolve as the goal becomes obscured. The goal hasn’t changed, the island hasn’t moved, and the route is the same. What is critical is a combination of strong leadership and the willingness to trust competency and skill, plus faith and confidence in the plan and the people who are with us — our team. And then there is “Edge,” the ability required of all good leaders to make tough but compassionate “yes/no” decisions.
In this instance, leadership takes the form of the helmsmen — skilled navigators, quietly competent, trusting their instincts and confirming our route. What could change in wind and tide and visibility, and how would we know when the risks are too high? Decision making in this case is not a democratic event.
We get to Brimstone Island safely, touch base, and return (after a bracing swim in October waters!). Our team is now stronger than it was because of a new shared experience that took effort to create and perseverance to complete. The evening’s dinner on the dock brims with the excitement of shared accomplishment, which opens us to closer relationships, encourages deeper listening to a colleague’s difficulties and joys over this past year, and spurs compassion, connection, laughter. We have delivered on a shared goal set at the beginning of the year and the experience has helped us grow as an organization.
The next day we have some “ground truth” conversations, using this shared experience to ask ourselves, “Why do we do this work – coaching leaders, aligning teams, helping organizations achieve greater success – and not something else?”
We are business people, but also teachers, coaches, parents, and spouses. We are largely introverts by nature but excel in front of a group or a team, sharing our knowledge, our experiences, and the perspectives we think make us unique partners to an organization. We help leaders around the globe achieve greater financial performance, taking the assets they have been given and making them more valuable. We help organizations and people excel, often seeing and achieving results and growth they had not imagined possible.
We do this work because we think we can make a positive impact on people, helping them realize their potential, grow stronger, and nurture the leadership skills of others. We are not for everyone, for every leader. But partnered with leaders who look for what we bring, we have been very successful.
How does the stark Maine coast environment strengthen our desire and hone the skills we need to do our work? It strips away all but the most elemental things needed for success: fortitude, self-mastery, compassion, careful listening, and a deep desire to perform and succeed in the face of obstacles. Life and leadership can be cluttered. The fog, the granite, and the cold water — as well as companionship and trust — illuminate the essentials, reinforce our skills, and sharpen our insight.
Our challenge in the next year is to continue to make our unique perspective and skill set a differentiator for our organization and the value we bring to our clients. We will be writing more — reflecting on how our passion for people, their potential, and their performance is always at the center of what we do and why people want to work with us. If you are interested in us, in learning more, take a look at www.brimstoneconsulting.com. Come with us, tell us what you think, and explore how we can work together.