Anyone who knows me will know that I love my yacht racing… and I just had to buy this new book when I saw it promoted. It’s a true story that details great lessons in Leadership, and whether a sailor or not, it’s a gripping account of a race on the edge, and a young skipper’s determined journey to victory. The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race is the ultimate long distance challenge – a 35,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe, contested by amateur crews in identical racing yachts – and the winners are those who keep their focus the longest. Another part of what I enjoyed about this is the 2010 winner was 28-year-old Aussie Brendan Hall and his crew in Spirit of Australia.
Starting as a 27 year old, Brendan was the youngest and least experienced skipper in the race, but when you read the story, you’ll realise the win was no accident – it was the culmination of years of training, skilled navigation and a leadership style way beyond his years. Well before the start, Brendan got his inspiration from the previous race coming home and set himself a lofty goal…of not just taking part, but of lifting the winners trophy at the end. This book shares the process for becoming a great leader.
He then set about earning the right to be a skipper and with selection being another 8 months away he set about his preparation to ensure he was best placed to succeed…firstly in being selected and then in winning. His preparation was thorough to say the least…far more than any of the other candidates, who being older and more experienced may not have felt the need. He interviewed every one of the last race skippers, drafted a number of lists, pro’s and cons, strengths and weaknesses and then more detailed lists of how to take advantage or overcome the items listed.
Once allocated a team Brendan set about building a great unity amongst the team by discussing with them a vision, and common goal to work together to achieve. The vision was no loose thrown together concept, but written down in detail. They were the last to get sponsorship and therefore a name for the yacht so called themselves Team Spirit to have an identity to be proud of with 3 key qualities bonding them under the headings of Pride, Energy and Support.
Brendan set tight rules about how they would “play the game” and opened the opportunity for all team members to contribute ideas to the team and the boat. A major filter that each idea was put through was… “will it make the boat go faster?”. Now something that simple to say is not so simple in a race of this magnitude and there are a lot of variables to consider in answering that, such as the teams morale and safety, which all affect boat speed. The lighter the boat could be kept, the less of the boat being pushed through the water means an edge over the others in speed…maybe only marginal, however over a long time frame(distance) can make a major difference. Things that would lift and maintain crew morale can help concentration and the energy being put in every 24 hours.
Brendan was smart enough too, to think about delegation. He realised that as the guy responsible for everyones safety, plus the strategy around winning the race, he needed to be on top of the game at all times. He identified strengths and weaknesses in his team of enthusiastic amateurs and selected a couple of watch leaders to groom to help him run the boat. This enabled him to get rest when the opportunity arose, so that he could be fully effective when the chips were down…something which paid off big time when crossing the North Pacific.
Early in the race he allowed the culture or team rules that had been set, to be broken by pushing the boat too hard and caused some minor damage…luckily repairable. Lesson learned he made sure that never again in the race would he allow it to happen again.
6 key essentials I find he identified included…
- Effective conflict management. Lack of this would undermine the running of a spirited team. Causes could include unclear goals, a lack of team member involvement in decision making, unclear roles and allocation of roles, lack of fairness, and insensitivity to other’s needs. In Effective Leadership, it is crucial to have clear plans in place to tackle each situation, and not leave it to chance or hoping it will be “alright on the night”.
- Build a Culture of Continuous Learning. On a boat this means you keep dissecting your successes and failures with the aim of constant improvement. Leaders need to keep reviewing what is working and what is not, and why you are or are not winning people’s commitment.
- Make Strong Communication the Pivotal Characteristic of the team. As the Skipper he demonstrates it takes far more than just noble sentiments. It demands leaders and followers develop an effective and involving knowledge sharing approach.
- Your Mood Becomes Their Mood. Self-awareness is critical for a boat skipper and it’s much the same for any effective leader. The shadow you cast as a leader is bigger than you realise and “your words and actions become magnified because of your position.”
- Keep The Big Picture In Mind. Never lose sight of the essential goal. “Think long term victory, not short term glory.” So much of present company and political behaviour seems driven by greed and short-term gains that will never leave a legacy or build a sustainable reputation.
- Trust Your Gut Instinct. Often the head over rules the feeling, both in sailing and in running a business. What Hall shares is his learning that ignoring your instinctive feelings about what is right and wrong can be a serious error. Leaders who develop their moral compass and follow their instinct for what is ethically sound are more likely to succeed that those who rely on rules and sheer logic.
This book has many other lessons to share, these were core to his success, plus one general principle important to every leader in a business organisation, that of delegation.
Hall set out to make himself redundant. He put it more starkly as: the crew must be able to sail the boat without him to safety. So he worked on the assumption that he might be injured or washed overboard and the crew must be self-sufficient. This proved literally a life saver, as during the race – in the middle of a North Pacific hurricane – he had to transfer to another boat in distress. He went to the rescue of an injured skipper on a competing yacht and ended up skippering both boats across one of the most feared oceans in the world, leaving his own crew to carry on without him. They managed perfectly well.
Leaders in business need stakeholders able to “steer the ship without them”, making difficult choices and knowing when to ask for help. This inspiring story is packed with leadership lessons that are worth exploring, from valuing feedback, to setting short-term goals. The alternative is yet more resources on policing the system, having “monitors” to check the checkers and so on.
Leadership is never going to be “plain sailing.”…. sailing isn’t either.
Halls no-holds-barred account is totally revealing and instructive, including valuable lessons in leadership and management throughout – and never giving up. This story demonstrates in real life, how you can be a great leader, and be pushed to the limit, and succeed. Learn from lessons you can otherwise only learn the hard way.