One Sunday morning not long after I had been introduced to sailing, I was enjoying a cup of coffee in the cockpit of my friend Strider’s boat. The sounds of rustling canvas alerted me to watch a bronzed man on a neighboring boat haul up his sails, walk calmly to the bow, and drop one of his two anchor lines overboard with a buoy attached to it. After sailing up to his second anchor and letting the momentum of the boat break it loose from the bottom, he secured it to the foredeck and walked coolly back to the cockpit. Untethered from the sea bottom, Dancer tacked nimbly through the anchored boats and out onto Biscayne Bay. Her sails merged slowly with the southern horizon.
Late that afternoon, a flash of white sailcloth caught my eye. Dancer turned behind us and rounded into the wind. She stalled a few feet behind the buoy her pilot had left behind. Her captain walked forward with the same calm confidence—as if time had stopped and he could pause if he wanted to attend to some repair on the cabin top—and then, reaching down with a boathook, he pulled up the buoy and Dancer was anchored. He dropped and set the second anchor using the same elegant seamanship he’d used to bring it on deck that morning.
“That was some fancy sailing over there,” I said to Strider, who was by this time absorbed with chopping vegetables for dinner.
“That’s Kiko,” he said. “He’s a virtuoso, a prodigy. If he has an engine aboard, I’ve never heard him start it. It’s a point of sailor’s pride for him to get under weigh, enjoy a day of sailing, and anchor back up without using any force other than the wind. No motor. No muscle. Just pure finesse. He’s one with the boat and the wind and the water.”
“Do you think he might show me a few of his sailing tricks?” I asked.
Strider chuckled. “He’s a kind man, and I suspect he’d try, but have you ever heard the story of the centipede?”
I eagerly took Strider’s bait. “No,” I said, “but I expect I should.”
“An ant went up to a centipede. ‘I’m amazed you can coordinate all those legs,’ said the ant. ‘Sometimes I have trouble managing six. How do you do it?’
“‘It’s easy,’ said the centipede with a confident wink. ‘First I take these pairs of legs up front and I … well, no, that’s not quite it. I divide the legs up into odds and evens and left and right. Whenever I move the odd, left legs, I get the even, right legs into position to … hmm … that’s not quite it, either. Give me a moment to think about it so I can explain it to you.’
“The centipede began to twist and flex and curl and uncurl his long body. He rolled on his back and wiggled his legs around. When the ant got tired and wandered off, the centipede was still tied up in knots, trying to figure out how to explain what he’d done naturally and effortlessly when he’d first been asked the question.”
I smiled at Strider. “Good story, as usual. I had a guitar teacher like that once.”
“I heard him play in a club and it was like watching Jimi Hendrix come back to life; the guy was amazing. I asked if he gave lessons and he was very encouraging and said he’d be honored to.
“But when we got together, he couldn’t explain anything. He told me to ‘do it like this’ and ‘just put this finger here and that finger there.’ It was great to be able to ask questions and watch him up close, but…”
“Typical virtuoso,” said Strider. “A great player, but a terrible teacher.”
I took a deep, slightly frustrated breath.
Strider continued. “I once knew a guy with one leg who was the best soccer coach you ever saw. Doug Burris was a virtuoso classical guitarist who coached the music ensembles at Miami Beach High School to win competition after competition. Even after MS took away his ability to walk and move his hands, his students continued to win. They played in New Orleans and Japan and even at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’m not sure I can duplicate Kiko’s sailing finesse, but I can explain what he did and how he did it. Let me draw you some diagrams and it will all make sense to you. Then you can go out in the dinghy and practice it.” Strider flashed me his best centipede wink. “Even virtuosos have to practice.”
Many years later, I was talking with the CEO of a large enterprise about some problems he had in his organization. “I like your concepts,” he said, “but you’ve never run a large corporation, and you don’t have an MBA. Why should I hire you to help me fix my business when I have a hundred times your experience?”
I felt diminished and unsure for a moment, and then Strider’s stories came back to me. “That’s a fair question,” I replied. “Have you ever heard the story of the centipede?”
“Do you really need a virtuoso business expert? I doubt anyone is going to teach you anything you don’t already know about business—and if they can, you’ll pay a ridiculous fee for their time as they would yours. But if your organization has a hundred pairs of legs to coordinate, I can help you create the stories that make that centipede dance. And your customers are a different set of legs. You need to keep them on the dance floor, too. Do you want a virtuoso business expert or a virtuoso coach?”
I’ve been helping that client untangle his enterprise ever since.
If you think you have to be a virtuoso to be a good teacher, you may doubt yourself too much to feel comfortable offering the real magic your customers need to achieve transformation.
If you make widgets and think a virtuoso widget-maker is the only person who can deliver the solutions you need, you might overlook the people best qualified to help you change your story.