- Posted by Gavin Pommernelle
- On December 6, 2014
The sailing season has ended and the boats are out of the water, wrapped up for the winter.
Reflecting on the boats I was fortunate to crew on, I’m struck by how much the skippers’ leadership styles directly impacted our race performance and found that these provide valuable leadership lessons that can be applied to the business world.
For Example, the Absentee Skipper
This happened when we started a race with no one being assigned a role; it was assumed the crew members would sort it out between themselves. The start was the first key maneuver required and the misunderstandings highlighted how wrong this assumption was. The most dangerous example I’ve experienced was when the boat broached because a key position had not been assigned, people were scrambling to help each other in a strong wind and no one was ready to ease the sail.
Lesson: Know the skills of your team members; assign roles and responsibilities accordingly; and make sure that everyone is aware of these.
Too Many Skippers
This can be as dangerous as the first example. I’ve been in a situation where four of the six crew members had the experience to skipper the boat and win the race. However, each was allowed to not only express their opinions but act on them without coordination. A race that should have been won through the talent on board was lost by a wide margin. While is shows depth in skill and talent to have more than one person on the team who could step up, the crew need to know who to follow.
Lesson: Be clear when you are looking for ideas and insights, and when a decision is made that everyone must follow.
The Teaching Skipper
My sailing skills have developed over the last two seasons due to one skipper in particular. He taught me to be much better at helming the boat by starting simply. First I would take the boat to the race start under motor; then he let me helm at the end of the race under sail. I am now helming during races, including long watches on overnight races. He also encouraged me learn under others. Working with the bowman to get the spinnaker up, and understand the technique required to keep it trimmed.
Lesson: There are numerous learning opportunities for leaders to use with team members. Don’t wait to be asked to teach someone; this will demonstrate your confidence in them, and drive their commitment to getting it right. It builds the capability of your team and develops relationships between team members.
The Responsive Skipper
Do you know how to reef your sails if a sudden storm comes up? Are you wise enough to change course before it’s too late? Have you practiced drills that are not commonly used? These are all characteristics of a good skipper and leader. I’ve sailed on boats where drills to prepare for emergencies was a priority and others where it was never covered. Don’t find out the hard way if you’re ready to handle a sudden storm.
Lesson: A good leader will put in place early warning systems, such as key performance indicators. Use them to not only show you how you are doing, but also as early indicators of a potential issue that you need to respond to before it’s too late. Your preparation for the unexpected will determine how well you then deal with it. This is a key element of success where circumstances are always changing. New competitors coming to market; clients changing direction; and losing a key member of your team are just a few examples.
In business or in sport, teams need clarity of the goal and their individual roles in achieving the goal. They need to know when to contribute ideas or when to follow direction, and what it takes to do so. This does not happen by itself. It takes focus, action and practice. Without this teams are simply a group of individuals – this leads to conflict, wasted effort and under performance or even failure. As a leader you have the ability to overcome this and ensure success through your own actions.
Thank you to the great skippers and crew members over these last few years who have given me the opportunity to learn, compete and have fun on the water.