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Donkin on Work - Leadership

July 2006 – Leadership on a small boat

For the best part of this past weekend I and eight others were confined to the limited space of a 38ft yacht sailing between various buoys and markers in the English Channel in one of the annual series of offshore races organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club.

The weather ranged from benign seas with the gentlest of breezes to a thunderstorm of such ferocity and suddenness that one boat had its foresail ripped apart and another, a broken boom.

But this is a competitive crew – we came second in class for the third time this year, a remarkable achievement in that most of the crew members are relatively new to this kind of sailing with no more than a season or two’s racing experience. Even the more seasoned team members will admit that every race is a learning experience.

The most recent finish was achieved in spite of a poor start that left us almost at the back of the fleet. It may be that this made everyone more determined to compete. A more likely explanation, however, is in the improving performance of various routines and manoeuvres that, when executed smoothly, can improve boat speed by a fraction. Singly the margins are imperceptible, but cumulatively over a 24-hour race, they make a gulf of difference.

Anyone who has watched the way a single pit stop or tyre change in a formula one motor race can improve a car’s performance by a split second a lap, will appreciate how seemingly small actions and decisions in a long race can extend margins of performance over the whole of the contest.

There is much in sail racing that can be transferred to the environment of corporate management although I remain sceptical of those who believe that the answer to team building in a workforce is to put their employees on a boat and let them get on with it.
Teamwork will happen - it’s the only the way of getting things done at sea – but the same dynamics can not be replicated so simply in an office where sometimes it is difficult to identify any competition, particularly in the public sector.

How do you get a back-office function in a government department to deliver great service when the consequences of failure and success are far from apparent? Last week I was speaking with a civil service press officer, seeking some information she could have accessed easily with a couple of telephone calls. But she simply didn’t want to know. Perhaps she would have acted differently had she been part of a team.

In sailing almost every decision and every task, is executed with witnesses, all of whom are likely to share the consequences of poor teamwork. Cause and effect are instantly recognisable. One small slip-up occurred at the weekend when someone made a wrong call. He said it with such a sense of authority that a rope was released, leading to a foul up that, fortunately, was easily corrected.

There was no blame attached and the crew member – a senior business manager – quickly apologised. The mistake was a lesson in leadership, not for those who seek to lead, but for those of us, and I include myself, who are sometimes too content to follow in the assumption that someone else knows better.

This is not to say that employees should question every management decision. But it is important in any effective team that people have the personal strength to think for themselves and do what they know is the right thing, even when questioned by others. The helm, like any controlling position, is an intoxicating platform of power, but responsibility in small competing teams must be collective.

It helps that our yacht, Puma Logic, has a talented skipper in Philippe Falle who I have sailed with many times. A few years ago he broke with a sailing tradition that insisted that any racing crew needed a wealth of experience to compete at the highest levels.

After heading training at Formula One Sailing, an earlier sail racing company, he teamed up with Ali Smith, a sailing logistics specialist, at Sailing Logic*, a Southampton-based company that runs and organises corporate days, training courses and racing boats. Today he runs the racing side of the business.

Falle would be the first to admit that sometimes he makes mistakes. In fact admitting and learning from mistakes, among every member of his team, has made a significant difference to the way it has improved. Bad decisions, poor communications, and various misunderstandings are reviewed and digested. But they are not subjected to the sort of confidence-sapping analysis that can be counter-productive when people are reminded continually of past errors. We learn and move on.

The sail racing came to mind while reading a new book, Leading Through Conflict, How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, by Mark Gerzon**. Gerzon has noticed that most things in life involve conflict of various forms, whether what he calls “hot conflicts” – strong emotions, loud voices, visible tensions, or less visible “cold” conflicts - suppressed emotion, tense silence and disguised stress.

Some of these conflicts emerge when people come together from different backgrounds where perspectives, cultures and beliefs may not be shared by those with whom they find themselves working. As Gerzon points out, today some 63,000 companies are operating trans-nationally, employing 90m people and responsible for a quarter of the world’s gross national product.

“We simply cannot manage a whole company, a whole community, and certainly not a whole planet, with leaders who identify with only one part,” he writes. For this reason he believes that future corporate leaders will need to be experts in mediation rather than demagoguery – a controlling style of leadership that predominated for much of the 20th century.

“Demagogues,” he writes, “repeatedly resort to blaming someone else for any failures and to achieving success through employees’ fear of becoming the next scapegoat.” Sadly, as he notes, such methods have yet to disappear in some companies. Anyone who questioned decisions in Enron or WorldCom, companies whose names have become synonymous with corporate scandal, were quickly branded as “disloyal”.

In the same way, those who question management in companies where employee morale has slumped are often labelled as moaners or malcontents who need to be weeded out of the system. But suppose they have a point? Any leader equipped with mediation skills, examining different viewpoints, is going to win the respect of dissenters if they feel that someone is listening.

One problem with mediation in leadership is that it can take time, something that in a highly competitive atmosphere is in short supply. That is why the most competitive teams need individuals who are all capable of leadership at times.

A few weeks ago, witnessing the teamworking on ABN Amro One, the winning yacht in the Volvo Ocean race, I never heard a raised voice or a word of dissent. But I did hear people talking all the time – a constant interplay of discussion about various tasks and tactics with the single combined aim of winning the race. If people did have conflicts they managed them in a way that did not disrupt the harmony of the team.

No team, not even that one, is perfect, but quiet mediation, respecting the points of others and working on your own role in the team is something that could improve many working environments, not just those on boats.


**Leading Through Conflict, How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, by Mark Gerzon, is published by Harvard Business School Press, price $27.95.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved