Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Ocean: Culture

Jessica Watson
Posted May 16 2018

©ACEA/ABNER KINGMAN. Two-time Americas Cup winning skipper Jimmy Spithill.  

A culture of success on the water is supported by group ‘norms’ and requires team members to fully buy into the collective vision.

Harvard Business School Professor Richard Hackman (1) expresses what is now a widely held belief, that a vision or ‘compelling direction’ energises, orients and engages a team. Statements of such a vision or mission are commonly presented as an expression of a company or team’s culture. But when it comes to high-achieving teams on the water, it isn’t enough to simply have a stated vision; team members also need to fully buy into it.

Two-time America’s Cup winning skipper Jimmy Spithill believes that a ‘successful culture’ is only achieved when the team’s vision is prioritised over the individual's ego, when ‘all actions and decisions are based on what will help the team win, regardless of who is on and off the boat or what role they are playing’.

The importance of this commitment to a collective vision is also evident in Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff’s (2) investigation of maritime disasters. They found that survivors who were able to ‘fight the mindset of individual self-preservation’ and commit themselves to the group’s collective survival drastically improve their odds. Tim Jarvis and his crew’s successful re-enactment of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous 1916 Southern Ocean voyage is another demonstration of commitment to group survival, with crew members willingly risking their own lives while helping to better the odds of the group’s collective survival.

When it comes to building commitment to the collective vision, both Jimmy Spithill and Clipper Race skipper Wendy Tuck suggest that the entire team’s involvement in the initial development of the vision is beneficial. The process of involving the entire team in the formation of a collective philosophy was also used by the successful 2003 America’s Cup challenger Team Alinghi (3), who prioritised this before their intensive training programme began. However, in circumstances when the collective development of the vision is not possible, such as the late induction of a new crew member, Jimmy suggests that it is still possible for the new member to ‘buy in’ if the team’s philosophy is well explained.

With a vision set and the team’s commitment to it established, culture is then reinforced through what Richard Hackman (1) describes as ‘group norms’, or the behaviours that are deemed acceptable. An example of the policing of such norms for Team Alinghi (3) was the policy of removing ‘high-spirted’ or ‘trash-talking’ sailors from the boat. Or, for Tim Jarvis, a committed work ethic and the constant re-evaluation of processes during expedition preparations were established norms.

A few words about this blog series:

Sailing, whether for survival or competition, is an unforgiving business. The teams that excel in such environments provide a multitude of learnings for leaders back on dry land. So through this blog series, I’ve set out to explore some of the most important and universally applicable leadership lessons from the oceans.

Based on existing research, interviews with some very well-credentialed sailors and my own observations, I’ll be posting weekly, covering trust, communication, diversity, culture, leadership styles and team formation. I wanted to include a breadth of insight from the different extremes of sailing, so you’ll be hearing from legendary America’s Cup winning skippers, a skipper charged with leading largely amateur crews through some of the world’s most dangerous oceans, and a man who re-enacted one of history’s greatest survival voyages.

Occasionally I still see some of the concepts that will be covered in this series – such as trust and diversity – considered ‘fluffy’, nice ideas, luxuries that are secondary to a team’s core business. So by showcasing their importance in such punishing, competitive, life-threatening, and typically masculine environments, I hope to prove their worth.

1. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams, 2002

2 .Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, No Mercy – True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality, 2013

3. Wolfgang Jenewein and Christian Schmitz, Creating a High-Performance Team Through Transformational Leadership: The Case of Alinghi, 2007

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