The Rudder and the Soul

“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.”
—Kahlil Gibran

Title: Boat. Rudder | Author: Tomás Fano on Flickr | Source: | License: CC BY 2.0
Title: Boat. Rudder | Author: Tomás Fano | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0

In rowing competitions, the top-level crews of the world probably wouldn’t be greatly affected by a top-level coxswain change. If the coxswain is inexperienced, however, the crew would be negatively affected. The coxswain is the person in charge of a boat, particularly its navigation and steering. He or she controls the rudder and the direction of the boat.

In the US, we just switched out a highly experienced President with a totally inexperienced President and put him in charge of a low performing crew. As a result, we are witnessing a country tossing about in the stormy seas. Our boat is foundering mightily despite the protestations of its crazy coxswain that his fine-tuned ship is fit to sail.

In the process of writing this post, I switched out the title from “Mental and Moral Competency” to “The Rudder and the Soul.” As I was doing the research on mental and moral competency, I found that the characteristics of each formed handy acronyms. As it turns out, mental competency is defined as the ability to reason logically, understand deeply, deliberate thoughtfully, decide accurately, express opinions coherently, and receive multiple sources of input for analytical processing.   Thus, the acronym RUDDER:

Reasoning (acting congruently with stated values and positions)
Understanding (processing information and making it available)
Deliberation (considering thoughtfully the consequences of decisions)
Decision Making (choosing accurately based on objectives and values)
Expression (communicating compelling messages in an articulate way)
Receptivity (opening to multiple sources of input and points of view)

Clearly, based on these criteria, there are significant deficiencies in the mental competence of our Chief Coxswain.

When I reviewed the literature on moral competence, I returned to the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist[1]. Kohlberg’s ideas on the stages of moral development can be captured in the following grid:

Stage Orientation Focus
1 Obedience and Punishment Consequences to self
2 Self Interest What’s in it for me
3 Interpersonal accord and conformity Social norms and approval
4 Authority and social order Ideology and laws
5 Social Contract Collaboration and common good
6 Universal Ethical Principles Justice and Equality

Theoretically, as people grow and develop they move up the scale from complete self-absorption to a life based on larger social issues, ethical principles, and collaboration. As a person moves through the stages, she or he becomes less interested in satisfying privatized motives and more passionate about promoting justice and equality in pursuit of the common good.

Title: rudder | Author: Mike Mahaffie (Flickr user mmahaffie) | Source: | License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Title: rudder | Author: Mike Mahaffie (mmahaffie) | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY NC-SA 2.0

Unfortunately, our Chief Coxswain never progressed beyond level 2 and the republican majority in Congress is stuck in Stages 3 and 4.  They are totally focused on the approval of their constituency and bound by their rigid ideology.

When I reviewed additional articles on moral competence, it seemed to me that most of the literature could be conveniently summarized with the acronym SOUL:

Spiritual Development (Stage 6 with love, hope, and passion)
Other-Directedness (Stage 5 with kindness and modesty)
Under Control (Stage 4 with prudence, self-regulation and even-temperament)
Love of Learning (Stage 5 with intellectual reasoning and emotional curiosity)

When I look at the Republican-dominated Congress, I’m not seeing a lot of love, kindness, prudence, or curiosity. Indeed, it’s a pretty soulless group of self-obsessed individuals who are too cowardly to take a principled stand for the greater good.

Credit: goldbug | License: CC0
Credit: goldbug

What struck me in all of the literature was the importance of context in mental and moral competency. Specific competencies are required for specific tasks, and there has to be an appreciation of one’s situation and the risks and benefits of choices made. Yes, competency is contextual. Thus, assuming that success in business will be a good indicator of success in government is dangerous. Both mental and moral competencies depend upon the requirements of the situation in which leaders find themselves.

The executive function represents the highest level of mental competence. It is the ability to plan ahead, anticipate consequences, derive abstract meaning, and arrive at appropriate judgments. There is wide variability among leaders on this level of mental competence, but Trump is weak on all aspects.

In the best-selling book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Oympics, Daniel James Brown tells the story of how the University of Washington rowing team won gold through great coaching, leadership, and grit[2]. On the day of the Olympic race, the American team was at a serious disadvantage. They had been placed in the worst lane, the weather was poor, and one of their team members was seriously ill. Nevertheless, they stepped into the boat as a team, came from behind, and won the gold medal. Their victory demonstrated powerfully how a competent coxswain and a soulful crew could overcome great odds to win. They were mentally and morally competent.

In the current administration, we have a crazy coxswain and a cowardly crew. Essentially, there is no rudder and no soul. Don’t expect them to win any Olympic competition. I’ll be happy if they make it to the finish line (2020) before sinking the boat.

Let’s turn back to the wisdom of Kahlil Gibran for some guidance in these turbulent seas:

“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;
And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.”

May we all rise like a phoenix!

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Further Reading:

[1] Lawrence Kohlberg 
[2] The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Also published on Medium.

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Artie Egendorf, PhD

Ah, dear carefully reasoned, impassioned soul, ever bearing witness with your dedicated plowing into the challenges of our time to sort out, make sense, lay out paths, leading by example for us to do our own version as citizens of country, life and unfolding mystery. Love


Wow! Loved your acronyms and reference to navigational “duties.” The Boys in the Boat was a great book and a wonderful analogy to the opposite circumstance we are witnessing. Keep me going Ricky, I need your inspiration to buoy me up and keep my nostrils above the water line! RonnyDonny

Marty Jansen
Marty Jansen

Rick – this post is so well written and so on-point, that I’m simultaneously in shock and awe (not the military version, though). Having read Daniel James Brown’s book a few years ago, I never thought that it might have future importance as an analogy for the erratic course this country is now sailing. What a shame it had to be written at all.


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