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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, by drawing on my experiences, as well as those of some of Australia’s best sailors, I set out to explore the most important and universally applicable leadership lessons from the oceans.

Trust

First up, it quickly becomes clear that trust is an undisputable ingredient for any effective team on the water. And there’s a clear consensus among a number of successful sailing leaders that a notion to the effect of responsibility is critical to the development of trust. The skipper of two America’s Cup winning teams Jimmy (James) Spithill puts it simply, suggesting that trust is achieved ‘by giving responsibility and by accountability’.

Another legendary America’s Cup winning skipper John Bertrand builds on this, saying, ‘It’s how you conduct yourself. It’s a sense of authenticity. It revolves around honesty and integrity, transparency and communication.’ In my own experience leading a youth crew in the notorious Sydney to Hobart Yacht race, I saw that it was only when crew members were willing to be open, even making themselves vulnerable by admitting their limitations, that a level of trust was established allowing us to operate as an effective team.

Inclusive communication

Like trust, it came as no surprise that good communication was considered key to success on the water, but interestingly it was a certain style of communication, an inclusive or participative approach, that was most widely credited with success. 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.

Tim Jarvis, the leader of a team that re-enacted Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 incredible survival voyage sailing from the Antarctic continent to South Georgia Island in an open boat, 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.’

Constructive conflict

The next similarity I noticed across a number of successful sailing teams wasn’t quite so intuitive. Many of the best sailing teams embrace conflict, although strictly conflict of the constructive variety. Jimmy Spithill is one of those who acknowledges the importance of ‘candour and challenging each other’, although ‘in a positive way’ he stresses.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that a willingness to challenge each other was an important attribute of the largely volunteer team that helped me prepare for my voyage around the world. On a number of occasions, I remember feeling stressed by the conflicting advice I was being given and by the robust 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 was willing to challenge each other’s thinking.

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