Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Ocean: Team Formation

Jessica Watson
Posted May 30 2018

Cover photo: Clipper Race winning skipper Wendy Tuck, CLIPPER RACE.

The formation of a successful sailing team requires a balance of ability and attitude and a willingness to evolve.

When it comes to the formation of a team, there’s firstly a consensus among top sailing leaders that each potential team member must be assessed on both their skills and expertise and the compatibility of their values. ‘It doesn’t matter how talented you are,’ says America’s Cup winning skipper Jimmy Spithill. ‘If you have an ego or bad attitude, you have no place in a successful team.’ Adventurer Tim Jarvis echoes this, saying that once a certain standard of ability is met, crew selection comes down to a ‘positive attitude’.

Legendary Australian skipper John Bertrand stresses the importance of considering the value that each potential member brings to the team. 2003 America’s Cup Challenger Team Alignhi (1) strived for a democratic approach, allowing many crew decisions to be made by consensus. And Clipper Skipper Wendy Tuck describes the need to ensure that different attributes, such as competitiveness, were balanced throughout her amateur crew and across the different watches held while at sea.

Like teams off the water and across many different disciplines, sailing teams are also prone to change. For this reason, Jimmy makes the point that champion teams must also include backup members and must be prepared to evolve. The development of trust among team members requires time (as explored in this previous post), so crew changes can prove challenging, but Jimmy suggests that the ability to come together and grow in the face of adversity is the hallmark of a good team.

A team will ideally establish its vision collaboratively (as covered in this previous post), but when circumstances don’t allow for that, it becomes important that potential new team members’ alignment with the team philosophy is established. Jimmy also stresses that the support of the existing team will give the new member the confidence they need to get up to speed quickly.

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

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