It’s four in the morning. Other than a spectacular blanket of stars, there isn’t much to see. While there are certainly other boats in the water, the crew feel completely alone in an unforgiving ocean. Tonight, my thoughts are on keeping a steady course, all part of our quest to break the extreme sailing record for a transatlantic crossing. Back on dry land with ample time to reflect, I think about those nights and what my crewmates and I accomplished. We won the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, a race from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia, crossing the vast ocean with no motor in a little over eight days. But the lessons learned on the water aren’t only geared towards sailors.
To achieve business excellence, you need strong, aligned teams. This can be a challenge even under normal conditions of the workplace when everyone feels safe, and stress levels are relatively low. Now imagine the type of situation that my crew and I faced: 15 people living together for nine days while moving 23-knots per hour, on an always rising and falling deck space smaller than most CEOs offices. The team works in rigid shifts – four hours of work, four hours of sleep – and if just one crew member isn’t on task, the boat could capsize in seconds.
I garnered six key lessons on leadership at sea, each of which can be directly applied to my business. Trust is an essential element of each of them. However, at sea we’re not just trusting in the capabilities and judgement of our teammates, we put our lives in each other’s hands.
Feed off the energy that stress creates
What turns 15 human beings under heavy pressure into a highly-functioning team? Instead of focusing on the source of stress, focus on what to do with the energy boost that such stress gives you. When faced with multiple options, always choose the most valuable one: collaboration. When you turn your attention away from yourself and the team, your natural proclivity for stress will melt away. This will give you the courage to face the source of that stress, and turn it into something incredibly powerful and positive.
Give everyone a chance to lead
To keep the boat moving at full speed, it’s important that the vessel is steered by team members who feel refreshed. This is not a typical regatta, where a talented helmsman can make the difference in a short sprint. There is no single leader – each person rotates through leading and supporting roles. The crew is divided into smaller teams that co-own the responsibility for staying on course. Each teammate is in charge when it’s their turn, and each one takes the time to rest. If one person is struggling, then it’s the duty of their teammates to provide assistance. On the ocean, just like in business, there is no room for heroes who seek to do more than their share, as they will become both more tired and less effective.
Say what is needed, when it’s needed
When the steering role is passed on so frequently, clear communication is the key to a coherent, consistent strategy. When taking the helm, I need to know the wind stability and direction, angle of waves, course heading and other crucial information. Don’t make assumptions. This handoff must be as effective and efficient as possible, as no one has the time to be distracted by other facts that might not be relevant to the immediate challenge.
During a race, discipline is key. Dropping the mainsail requires several people go through a series of well-rehearsed steps. Shortcuts never pay off. Discipline also means being mindful at all times, and being accountable to yourself. For example, you need to put on safety gear before every shift on deck. This takes 15 minutes to put it on, and 15 minutes to get it off – every four hours. While you might think those 30 minutes would be better spent sleeping (and so you should skip this step) the team is counting on you to remain at the moment.
Anticipate risk and consequences
At sea, you don’t have control over any of the external factors around you – such as the wind or waves. The boat’s speed and effectiveness depend on being able to anticipate the consequences of all factors and make decisions accordingly. If a strong storm is approaching, for example, do we maintain our current course and try and outrun the storm, or change our pack (and add extra miles to our trip) to avoid the weather? There is a fine line between getting to your final destination safe and getting there quickly – and both are guided by our ability to anticipate what is going to happen, and the potential impact that our decisions may have on the wider team in general.
Never lose sight of the shore
The biggest lesson I learned from this race is that it takes courage to cross the ocean, but it takes, even more, courage to create a tight relationship with a team – a mutual sharing of both physical and psychological experiences. As Christopher Columbus once said, “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” In business, we can take this beyond the literal sense; only when we are willing to lose sight of our established habits, instincts and social conventions, can we fully trust each other and connect deeply as human beings.