Do You Want to be a Tugboat or a Lighthouse?


I was sitting having coffee with another business owner when she said “and then I realised, I don’t want to be the tugboat in my business, I want to be the lighthouse. Do you know what I mean?”

I made a vague “mmhmm” noise and stirred my coffee quietly as she continued talking.

I did know what she meant.

But I didn’t know what it meant for me.

Later that day I found myself Googling “lighthouse vs. tugboat” and coming up with various variations of a self-help parable doing the rounds on the internet.

The parable asks the reader to visualise a tugboat, Its role is to lead other boats safely to shore. It pulls them, it drags them, and eventually, hopefully, it gets them there. Now imagine a lighthouse. Its role is also to guide boats safely to shore but it does so in a dramatically different way. The lighthouse doesn’t pull or drag, it stands tall on the shore beaming out light to guide the ships home. How the captains of those ships choose to follow that light remains their choice and responsibility. The lighthouse cannot change that, it can only stand firm beaming out its guidance like a beacon.

Are you a tugboat or a lighthouse?

All too often we show up for our clients and our businesses as their tugboats rather than their lighthouses.

We do the work, we pull and we drag them to where they want to be, often irrespective of where we think that they should be going. We forget that we have the expertise, that we have been hired by our clients for that expertise, that part of being able to charge rates which accurately reflect our expertise is in our skill as an experienced guide for our clients.

Think of your last business branding experience. When you brand your business there are lots of options and routes available to you to go from where you currently are - no brand or old brand - to where you want to be - the new brand. One option is to hop on over to Fiverr or Upwork or 99Designs and get someone to give you a logo. If you are disciplined and the odds are in your favour then you are going to end up with a new logo that you like, maybe even love. You won’t have paid very much for it, it probably took a lot more of your input to get it right but it does the job you want. Congratulations, you have reached the shore.

Now consider what happens when you hire a branding expert to (re)brand your business. A branding expert knows that branding is more than a logo, they will take the time to understand your business, to get to know you as the leader of your business and understand your vision for the future, they will present you with options and a wider range of implementations, they will work with you until your whole business reflects your vision. They cost a lot more than getting someone to design you a logo on Fiverr. It is a different way to reach the shore but congratulations, you’ve still reached the shore.

Becoming the Lighthouse

If, after reading the story above, your first thought was “That’s me! I’m the tugboat!” then your second thought was probably “but how do I become the lighthouse?”

There are some professions where this is easy. Take coaching as an example, coaches should always be the lighthouse, it is what they are trained to do, to offer guidance to their clients without imposing a prescribed direction on them. It’s what their clients expect of them.

However, if you are in a profession where you provide a service for your clients it may seem harder to break free of being the tugboat. For example, if you are a copywriter you may feel that you are doomed to live a tugboat life, pulling and dragging your client’s visions into words that engage other people. How could you possibly be a lighthouse when you actually have to do the work if you want to get paid? After all, you can’t just stand there and tell your client how to do it themselves, that’s not what they hired you for.

Take a moment though to consider what your client needs. Did they hire you just to churn out words or did they hire you to guide them so that you can write the best, most impactful, most engaging copy for their business? How often do you value (and charge for) your expertise at that level? How do you communicate the fact that in this, your zone of genius, you know more than your client about how to get their project to shore? There is a huge difference as a client between hiring someone to polish up your words (tugboat) and hiring someone to craft your vision (lighthouse).

Which one do you want to be?

Which one does your business need you to be?

If you are operating your business in tugboat mode then I am confident that this is part of the reason that you feel drained. It takes a lot of energy to pull and drag things to a successful conclusion. Maybe you have also been attracting the wrong clients to you because you are showing up as the tugboat and that’s all they want (or think they want). It is almost certainly keeping you trapped in the day-to-day of your business and not allowing you to create and implement long-term strategies for growth.

If you’ve accidentally become the tugboat in your business when what your business really needs you to be is the lighthouse, then it's time to make a change. Here’s what you need to do.

  • Clear a couple of hours, preferably half a day in your schedule to focus on your business.
  • Identify all the areas where you are behaving like a tugboat instead of a lighthouse.
  • For each area which you identify as a tugboat area, write out what that area would look like if you were the lighthouse. What would change in how you run that part of your business, how would clients interact with it, would your pricing need to change, do you need to outsource or hire someone in to take over, do you need to communicate these changes, if so how will you do that?
  • Now, take a planner and start to schedule in everything you need to do, or hire others to do,  in order to change your course. Remember, you’re still heading for shore, you’re just changing the way you get there. It’s time to chart your own course instead of letting the demands of your business lead you there.

Successful business growth requires strong leadership. Be a lighthouse, not a tugboat.


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