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Sailing with a World Class Leadership Team

First Posted September 1, 2007.

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In 1987, for a period of about two weeks, I stayed up most of the night watching big 12 meter yachts compete in the America’s Cup race. ESPN, in its first decade of life, broadcast the series live from Freemantle, Australia. I couldn’t get enough of it.  The energy, the danger, the team work, the margins of error and success, all contributed to an impression of yacht racing that has stayed with me ‘til this day.


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What captivated me about these yachts was the ability of their crews to push them to the edge of their capacity. Because of the cameras on board, viewers could get a really close up view of what goes on during a race. It was teamwork on the edge of chaos, at the edge of disaster, and at the edge of the physical limitations of man and technology.  The boats would tact to gain wind advantage, and cross by the stern just feet away from another boat. Here's a video of the Volvo Ocean Race.

Recently, I spent some time with a sailor who is the chief of a crew that competes in the SuperYacht class. Peter Grimm of Doyle Sails in Ft. Lauderdale is a family friend. Peter sails in 100 races a year, all over the world. The accompanying pictures were taken of the boat that his team sailed called Perseus. I asked Peter about what leading a competitive team in the Super Yacht category is like. There is a crew of 27 divided into three teams. Each team has a team leader who stays in constant contact with Peter. A boat like the Perseus will have a staff of six who maintain the boat and serve guests. During the competition, the owner and a few guests will sail along with the racing crew.

 

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I asked Peter about his role as leader of the crew. He quickly knew exactly what to say. There is no ambiguity in his mind about what it takes to be a world class sailing team. Here’s his description of the leadership qualities that he looks for from his team leaders.

Anticipation. When they are sailing in the chaos of competition, there is little room for error and no time to reflect on what is the best option at that moment. So, Peter expects his team leaders to anticipate his next move. Most of his team have been with him for 15 years. They know one another and his team leaders know how he thinks. For example, he wants his team leaders to anticipate when they will tack (make a turn) and prepare his team for that moment when Peter gives his command to tack.  Anticipating that decision saves precious time, and may be the difference between winning and losing.

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Calm under fire. Peter wants his team leaders to have a cool head in the heat of competition. If his team leader gets overly excited, that surge of adrenaline gets translated to his team, and the team’s edge is lost. Adrenline-rush impacts brain functioning. This is a physiological phenomenon that performers in other fields, like law enforcement and combat, experience, where fear and exhilaration accompany a situation of crisis and chaos. So, team leaders with cool heads keep their teams cool, that way the can communicate better, work in a tighter, more coordinated fashion.

Follow through on assignments without question. When Peter told me this, my first thought was of blind obedience. He explained that there is no time for discussion during competition. When he makes a decision, and he tells his team leaders to implement it, he wants guys who will do just that. In other words, on a sailing team, the roles are clearly defined, and the crew chief is the decision maker.

Tenacity.  Peter’s team leaders need to have a mindset that no problem or obstacle is insurmountable. The challenge on a sailing yacht is never let the difficulty of the race to persuade your team to believe that all is lost.

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Humility.  Odd that humility be paired with tenacity, but this is what Peter says is essential. He says, that on a racing yacht, “losing is normal; tomorrow, no one will remember who lost or won.” Humility in this context is the recognition that perfect is the goal that is never achieved. There are too many variables that make absolute perfection possible. So, it is important for team leaders to realize that they will make mistakes, and have the humility not to let that failure affect their performance.

Preparation and Planning.  One of the aspects of leadership Peter and I discussed was how his team prepares for a race. As the crew chief, he says that he has to care about his crew. He needs to know them, understand their personalities, know their life situation, and be able to adjust to their individual situations. As his crew begins their preparations for a race, he discusses with them goals and PeterGrimm6
expectations. He told me that it is important to be realistic. If it is realistic to expect to be finish in the top ten out of a hundred boats, then that is their goal. They set a realistic goal, and then plan for how they will achieve it. They discuss all aspects of what takes place during a race. 

As stated above, he expects his team leaders to follow his commands because there is no time for discussion in the midst of a race. However, he does expect his crew to be honest and forthright. He told me of one crewmember who was not going to race in a particular competition because of the birth of a child. This guy though kept up from home on what was happening, even reading thoroughly the competition rules that were posted online. He emailed Peter to check a specific phrasing of a rule because it was a bit different than what they expected. Suggestions and performance critique are expected, but typically are given following training runs and competitions.

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Here’s what I take away from Peter Grimm’s description of what it means to be a world-class sailing crew leader. High performing teams need to incorporate two seemingly contrary characteristics.

First, each member must perform at the highest possible level within their assigned role and responsibilities. A crewmember who is distracted is a danger to the whole boat, and possibly the other boats in the race.

Second, each member has to take the personal initiative to make the team the best it can be. They do this by observing and offering comments to improve team performance. The reality is that leadership as initiative is required of all members of a team. The crew leader’s job is one of preparation, coordination and execution.

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