Sort Your Ship Out – Navigating Relational Seas

(4-minute read)

“I don’t get it, I thought we were friends! I leave the team, and boom, I’m cut off and no one contacts me anymore.”

Sound familiar?

In working with leaders across organisations, you come across many cases of ‘disappointment’ stemming from relational expectation. This shows itself in various ways and is often painful. Interestingly, this kind of relational disappointment is rarely mutual. Each party often sees the relationship in a different way, with different expectations. Still sound familiar?

About twenty years ago, a kind boss shared a neat way of considering these complex relational dynamics. He told me, ‘Think of ships, Dave. Not every ship at sea does the same thing. Some ships are for cargo. Some for fishing. Some for pleasure. Basically, ships serve different functions.’ Then he said, ‘The same goes for relationships. But there are people who are going to get their ships mixed up. They get on the LeaderSHIP and instantly think they are on the FriendSHIP.’ (Kudos to David W!)

I was about 20, and thought he was he was being weird, but to be honest, it has taken me about 2 decades to see the importance of sorting my own ships out so that I can navigate the seas of life with others. Let me explain some more, starting with a classic example.

Imagine a bright young lady, full of zeal and promise, entering the LeaderSHIP team of a company. Deep down, she has a desire to be in FriendSHIP with the boss. She is expecting lunch and dinner invitations, like some of the other leaders have had; but months later, still no invite. This young leader gets frustrated and begins to engage less with her workplace. She presents fewer ideas at meetings and pulls out of important projects without warning. Her boss sees a decrease in her performance and kindness but hasn’t even considered the relational disappointment an issue, because she brought her into the company onboard the LeaderSHIP and not the FriendSHIP. What the young leader does not realise is that her boss’s FriendSHIP is full and she sees no need to expand it, regardless of a person’s position in their company. Sometime later, the young leader leaves the company, projecting her own pain on the boss as her lack of leadership ability.

What has happened here? This new leader packed her bags and stood at the dock waiting to board FriendSHIP without a ticket. Then, felt the pain of being rejected time and time again as the bosses party boat sailed off into the sunset.

Why is this too common? Why do we find ourselves boarding ships, jumping ships, finding ourselves feeling like hungry and shameful stowaways on certain ships? Why do some leaders find necessary organisational decisions so difficult, such as moving staff on (especially if staff are aboard intimate ship)?

I believe this stems from how we were influenced by three main cultures:
1. Family (home culture)
2. Society (country culture)
3. Religious (faith culture)

What we must be mindful of, and honour in ourselves, is our deep human desire for connection. The desire to be seen, known, heard and wanted is hardwired into us from our very conception. As Curt Thompson says ‘We are born into this world looking for someone looking for us, and we never stop searching.’

There is no shame in wanting to be on board any kind of ship. In fact, we are created for connection and each ship offers a different aspect of connection – and it’s helpful for us to keep a sober view of this.

Unpacking this would warrant a book or a workshop, but suffice to say that if the fruit of frustration is present in you or another, then there will be some kind of cultural roots that are causing pain. Perhaps a good place to start is to consider the ships in your own fleet; examining the expectation you have with each one.

Here are some of the most common ships in our RelationSHIP fleet:

KinSHIP – Family and birth based
FriendSHIP – Interest and pleasure based
PartnerSHIP – Project and team based
LeaderSHIP – Management and governance based
FellowSHIP – Club and Community based
CitizenSHIP – Nationality and origin based

So, the next time you enter a PartnerSHIP around a project (perhaps a work-related), ask yourself, ‘What are my expectations here? If we are sailing the seas of this venture together, am I expecting to become best buddies? Can I do friendliness without the commitment to friends? What if FriendSHIP develops? Do I have room on my FriendSHIP? What if they want to catch up on weekends but I don’t want to?’

Armed with this paradigm, I’ve found talking with safe-others through related frustrations has helped bring clarity to situations. I’m also discovering the bigger value of risking vulnerable conversations with valued others around relational expectations. In short, sorting your ship out is a maturity skill worth working on.

Happy sailing!


Please reach out with your thoughts, questions or comments.


  1. nick gwynn April 24, 2018 at 11:55 pm

    Great analogy David
    I’ve found that definition is so important on so many levels in relationships. I could certainly relate to this. Thanks

  2. Joleen Breidenthal April 25, 2018 at 9:23 am

    This was something I truly needed to here!!! Thank You for Sharing this, I am challenged with Family situation and It’s time to Sort Out My Ship!!!? God Bless You & Yours!

  3. RICHELLE WALKER May 2, 2018 at 6:44 am

    What an excellent message! It has truly helped me understand some of my own frustrations and the behaviour of others around me over the years. I wish I had read this years ago and I’m going to forward it on to my four adult children and perhaps even incorporate it into our small group studies. Thank you David!

  4. Linda Kriedemann May 3, 2018 at 9:44 am

    Very good article, it explains a lot. Sometimes the ministry / Christian – ship ? can be even more difficult because we “have” to be ‘nice’ & ‘loving’ etc. So many people don’t get boundaries.
    When we are dealing with deaper, heart ♥ issues, the one we’re ministering to, or leading in a home group, discipling etc assume a friendship outside that setting because we connected on an intimate level. The lines ⚟ get blurry for them.
    Now I can say “sorry this isn’t a ship ?”. Lol ? ? And of course sometimes I need to hear that too, when I assume friendships that aren’t actually there!

  5. Lisa May 15, 2018 at 11:14 am

    I have been struggling with this very thing and am working it out with Gods help! What a surprise to see this at just the right time but God is in the business of miracle timing. I thank God that He is teaching me through this word. Thank you too!

  6. David Balestri February 11, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    Brilliant article David

    I have seen this played out in so many contexts.

    My early employment career was littered with a misunderstanding around how to properly relate to the boss and receive instruction, feedback or correction

    This then also filtered into my businesses when I was the boss and had staff working for me.

    I see this now played out weekly in the larger organisations that I am involved in as a leader and also a consultant.

    This would be such a helpful workshop for both the profit and not for profit sectors

  7. David Tensen February 11, 2019 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks, David. I appreciate the comments and thoughts from yourself in this area.

    TBH, right now it’s a half made workshop, but it’s on the list!

    These misunderstandings are everywhere and from my research, have different nuance depending on culture.


  8. Melissa February 24, 2019 at 6:05 am

    Wow. Would be really interested to know the roots of why we stowaway or stand without a ticket and yet we think we should have one.

  9. Lynette Douglas September 6, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    David thank you for this post I am so glad We have a friend who sticks closer than a brother, Jesus. The disappointments that come from relationships not being what we thought they were or are is at times overwhelming and heartbreaking. many things test these But in my own case chronic illness leading to disability’s that preclude fellowship at meetings etc and has lead to isolation, is it a case of out of sight out of mind? but I in my Mind I still belong. I can watch services online I am thankful for Facebook and the many good sites that encourage and build I know the Lord works everything together for good and I have to push further into God and my relationship with Him and say like Jesus Father forgive them they don”t know what they are doing, also Lord forgive me for the times I have hurt others through sailing in the wrong ship xxx

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