Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Ocean: Inclusive Communication

Jessica Watson
Posted April 29 2018

Cover photo: John Bertrand and his crew claiming victory in the 1983 America’s Cup, Larry Moran.

Some of the most effective leaders on the water use an inclusive communication style whenever possible.

Like trust, good communication is well credited for the success of countless teams. An investigation of maritime disasters by Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff (1) bluntly highlights this, finding that survival was less likely for those groups who communicated ineffectively. ‘Communicate,’ Eleanor and Jenny recommend. ‘Silence is your enemy.’ (1)

However, communication is also an unhelpfully broad and vague concept, so this blog will drill down into a more directly applicable style of communication that’s been used to great effect by successful sailing skippers. This communication style is an inclusive or participative one that enables input from the entire team.

Iconic Australian skipper John Bertrand observed that his legendary rival Denis Connor used a participative leadership style to great effect on the water, but in adopting the technique himself John was conscious of ensuring consistency and authenticity in its use both on and off the water. ‘Getting people involved and getting them connected is really powerful,’ says John. ‘It’s the empowering of the people, you can potentially get one plus one to equal three.’

Jimmy Spithill provides another perspective on the importance seeking input from the entire team. ‘From my experience, especially in America’s Cup campaigns, the new concepts and fresh ideas come from the fresh faces generally, not from the experienced guys. So it’s important to have an environment where people, especially inexperienced people, are encouraged to express themselves.’

A leadership study of the 2013/2014 around the world Clipper Race (2) listed ‘valuing contributions from all crew’ as a key characteristic expected of skippers. Winning Clipper skipper Wendy Tuck points out that input from all crew members can’t always be sought in urgent situations, but she also recognises the importance of team discussions that allow all crew members to air their views.

Like Wendy, explorer Tim Jarvis describes high-pressure situations where inclusive communication isn’t appropriate, but for that reason, he acknowledges its importance whenever it is possible. ‘If everybody is sitting there worried about what it will be like if they bring up a problem - if I’m going to get cross at them,’ says Tim, ‘then you get to the Southern Ocean and find things that you’ve missed, then that’s a problem.’

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

2. Mission Performance, Leadership: Lessons from Ocean Racing, January 2016

5 people found this helpful. Do you?Thank Jessica Watson


Write your reply...

Please select a location