Eight Leadership lessons from the round the world yacht race
Eight Leadership lessons from the round the world yacht race
New research entitled The challenge of leading: Insights from the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race focuses on the key leadership challenges faced by the skippers, the approaches adopted to overcome them and how this impacted on the motivation and performance of their crews. The new study from Ashridge Business School provides insights into behaviours that promote exceptional team dynamics, as well as reveal behaviours that hinder performance.
Sailing itself was seldom mentioned by race participants as a challenge; it was fun, exciting, and sometimes daunting – but sailing could be taught, learnt and mastered. But, the greatest challenges discussed most often related to people:
“It’s not the boat, all boats are the same so… no, the boat’s fine. It’s the people; it’s always been about the people.”
The underpinning challenge on board each boat was that people had different reasons for taking part in the race. Some were keen to race competitively, while others were fulfilling a long-held ambition to just sail around the world. Skippers who developed a common identity, separable from performance and based on the boat, the crew and the sponsors met this challenge well. A collaborative process of discussion and feedback resulted in the skippers reaching an agreement of common intent, producing a team that accepted responsibility and took action. The need to manage differing expectations is a challenge familiar to business leaders and managers. The research stresses that teams must genuinely work together to establish a common identity and intent to reach the best overall outcome.
“Some of them are ultra-competitive, win-at-all-costs people. Other people want to go round for a more organic experience.”
Excellent communication is paramount
Communication was a challenge for Clipper crews on many levels. They had to consider how, what and, importantly, why things were communicated, as well as overcoming the physical challenge of making themselves heard against a backdrop of howling winds and lashing waves. Being able to communicate well reinforced the development of other capabilities – how people learn, integrate, manage themselves and support others was influenced by how people talked, listened and understood each other. Skippers and crew who were able to develop effective communication processes and adjust their style, experienced less friction. This underlines that respectful behaviour, excellent communication skills and being able to adapt communications styles is fundamental to team – building and developing an agile team.
“It does happen at times, but one thing I will always do to people is, or say to people is: ‘You know, sometimes it has to happen so let’s just do it and we will make sure we talk about it afterwards’. Rather than, you know, the skipper just said: ‘Do that, do this’.”
Spend time integrating new team members
One of the key challenges facing skippers was the need to effectively integrate ‘leggers’ – crew members who joined at different stages of the race – into life on board with the ‘round the worlders’ who were in it for the long haul. The challenge was to integrate people into the team with consistency when there were different sailing skills, abilities and attitudes at different stages across the race. The implications for business here can be linked to integration of teams more generally. It is very rare for a team to remain consistent from beginning to end; people come and go; energy and drive rise and fall. Teams will restructure, leaving some of the team intact and new people joining which leaves space for uncertainty.
“The round the world crew are the people that have all the consistency and the skills, and need to integrate the other guys in. We are there to integrate the new guys and basically to make them feel happy and safe and make them feel part of it.”
Leaders must focus on the broader team needs
Maintaining the needs of the race with the broader needs of the boat was a challenge that impacted on performance. Taking an approach that focused on technical expertise, concentrating effort on one or two specialised tasks, created streamlined action. Skippers who focused on the broader needs of the boat, however, gave crew the opportunity to stretch their experience and increase their knowledge by working on different tasks. There are clear parallels here to organisational life. Leaders who focus on the broad needs of the organisation provide a framework within which their people can adapt, adjust, learn and improve their ability to spot both opportunity and risk.
“Now in the Clipper situation it’s a lot different from what I’ve experienced before because you can’t fire someone, you can’t give anyone a bonus, you know, even trying to give someone like an extra chocolate for doing well can completely divide the crew.”
Adapt to evolving external environments
Keeping the crew motivated across the span of the race was a real challenge for the skippers. They had to sustain focus and enthusiasm and keep performance high during times when it was calm for long periods and work was repetitive, as well as keeping people going when times were tough. This clearly suggests that it is essential for leaders from all walks of life to maintain the balance of routine with improvement through creativity and innovation. Leaders must adapt, interpret and re-invent to suit the evolving needs of any challenging or changing situation.
“They expected it to be normal sailing; crashing around and sail changing every twenty minutes or whatever and there’s a long period of inactivity. And then people have time to think and we get agitated; we don’t have any major problems but the mood definitely changed.”
Develop a support network
Finding good support generally was a challenge as whilst there was some support from fellow crew members, or family and friends at home, the skippers often felt they had to keep things together for the sake of appearances. It is important for individuals to develop a support network to provide a safe opportunity to talk to people who can help them recognise and reflect on the issues. But equally, organisations must recognise that people under pressure benefit from good support.
“Maybe I should just take myself off into the boat locker and scream in my boat when things are going bad. Does that project a very professional image to my crew?”
Good sleep is essential
Managing themselves when tired took extra effort as the skippers had to make sure they continued to function. Coping with poor judgment, emotions, irritability and changing moods on the boat was a challenge when tired as it was difficult to find the extra energy to cope with friction. Building in time and expectation for rest and ideally, healthy sleep, allows those working under pressure to think, make decisions and assess risk with better clarity; this should be both at an individual and at an organisational level.
Sleep boosts energy, increases effectiveness and resilience and enables leaders to face life’s challenges. Ashridge research has also shown that sleep is critical for memory consolidation – the brain’s method of transferring new information to our long-term memory. In short, leaders – whether leading sports teams or companies – must make sure they protect their sleep.
The crew started from a position of trust in the skipper as the person in charge of the boat and their safety; if the trust of the crew was damaged, then it became more difficult to influence and shape performance. However, the skippers started from a position of healthy distrust as they had to gauge what each crew member was capable of. It was in a skipper’s interest to develop trust in the crew to allow them to step back with confidence. By developing trust in the capability of the team, more energy can be spent on focusing on what is important for the overall performance of the organisation.
Developing trust in a team has many implications for companies. By developing trust in the capability of a team, more energy can be focused on overall company performance, rather than getting caught up in detail. In turn, developing trust in leaders is key to enabling organisation to grow, develop and innovate.