Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Ocean: Diversity and Constructive Conflict

Jessica Watson
Posted May 9 2018

Cover photo: Brett Costello

Effective leaders recognise the importance of a diverse team and constructive conflict.

Suggesting that conflict is essential to a successful team might seem counter-intuitive, but Patrick Lencioni (1), an authority on team effectiveness from the business world, suggests that a ‘truly cohesive team’ engages in ‘unfiltered conflict around ideas’. Diversity is also heralded as an advantage at leading companies, improving ‘customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, leading to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns’, according to a study by consulting firm McKinsey (2). And these are views that are supported by the experiences of a number of successful skippers.

America’s Cup winning skipper Jimmy Spithill is one who has consciously sought diverse crew members, as ‘it usually brings a different way to reach a solution or problem-solve a challenge or task’. He’s also a believer in ‘candour and challenging each other’, although ‘in a positive way’ he adds.

This constructive conflict was something that my youth crew had to master while training for the Sydney to Hobart race. We had to learn the difference between challenging each other’s ideas and unproductive personal differences. A simple illustration of this is that we learnt to say ‘that was stupid’ but never ‘you’re stupid’.

Training with my 2011 youth Rolex Sydney to Hobart crew, the youngest ever team to compete in the notorious race.

Drawing on his time in numerous business leadership positions, in addition to his sailing achievements, John Bertrand also acknowledges the importance of diversity and conflict. ‘To maximise the potential of the organisation, the entire organisation needs to feel comfortable challenging the status quo,’ says John. ‘Everyone’s not the same and nor should they be. The power of an organisation is to have different people, with different characters working together.’

With the benefit of nearly ten years’ experience, I now see that the diversity of the largely volunteer team that helped me prepare for my voyage around the world was key to the project’s success. Those who offered their help were a mix of professionals and trades, all with very different sailing and adventuring backgrounds.

On a number of occasions, I remember feeling stressed by the conflicting advice I was being given and by the vigorous debates that were had on the merits of choosing one piece of equipment over another. These were life-and-death decisions, and I realise now that we were able to make the right decisions (there is very little I would do differently with hindsight) because the team had both a great diversity of perspective and a willingness to challenge each other’s thinking.

Of course, diversity only flourishes, and constructive conflict is only possible when there is an adequate level of trust (covered in this earlier post) and collective commitment to a team’s objective (to be covered in a later post).

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. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, 2002

2. McKinsey & Company, Diversity Matters, 2015

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