The isolation and sometimes extreme conditions on boats create a unique environment for teams. The many different roles, short bursts of action, long periods of inaction and the challenge of communicating over the noise of the wind require a skilled leader to keep a team on course. Historically, and to this day, skippers and captains are often held in great admiration at the yacht club bar or on a national scale. But, of course, no two captains are alike so I took a look at the different leadership styles you’re likely to see used by those behind the helm.
First up is the most traditional style of leadership: the hierarchical, coercive approach where the skipper demands the crew do as they say because they are in charge. This hierarchy will then flow right through the crew with each member having a clear position in the pecking order.
This type of skipper appears to know it all, and of course they might actually know it all, but chances are their lack of knowledge and ability is hidden beneath their authority. This type of skipper is very unlikely to give up their position at the helm of the boat, a clear visual reinforcement of their power. One time this type of leadership may be most effective is during a crisis situation where fast and decisive action is required.
Then we have charismatic leaders: big, sometimes quirky characters that are well known and often well respected or liked in boating circles. These are skippers that will attract great crew and inspire them to achieve great results. Their performance may not be sustainable, however, as these skippers can become complacent and may be polarising to those who clash with their big personalities.
These skippers are typically the “best” or most technically competent sailors on the boat. They are disciplined, doing a great job of their role and expecting the crew to follow their lead. While these skippers may have a tendency to make decisions with little input from other crew, their expectation of high standards commonly translates to high performance.
Democratic leaders share their leadership and distribute responsibility for safety and performance throughout the crew. This type of leadership seeks input from all crew members but requires commitment to a collective goal. One easy way to spot democratic leadership on a yacht is that crew members will be willing to do anything and everything on board. The helmsman might be seen scrubbing the bottom of the boat before sailing and the navigator might be seen helping the bowman run the sheets.
A nurturing or coaching leader will focus on providing their crew with the resources they need to perform. You see this style in boat owners who insist on buying their crews the best new sails and always having the logistics of sailing well in hand, allowing their crew to do what they do best. Like the democratic style, this type of leadership requires the team to be committed to their goals. These skippers will put their crew’s needs first and dedicate their time to developing and their crew’s skills ahead of their own.