Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Ocean: Leadership Styles

Good skippers are democratic, inclusive, coaching, and occasionally authoritative. Vision, charisma and a sense of fun also help.


As in the business world, it is apparent that on the water there is no single universally successful approach to leadership, with many of the most effective sailing leaders able to change their style to suit the situation at hand. Clipper Race skipper Wendy Tuck describes different crew members responding differently to different styles and explorer Tim Jarvis suggests that leadership really should be situational.

However, the styles that I’ve found to be the most commonly credited with success at sea were those that could be described as coaching, democratic or inclusive. America’s Cup winning skipper Jimmy Spithill takes a coaching approach, giving responsibility and accountability to others, allowing them to grow. ‘If you’ve hired people with skills and talent, then let them take it on,’ says Jimmy.

Another Cup-winning skipper John Bertrand says that he would like to think that his leadership could be described as inclusive. Reflecting on his re-enactment of, as well as Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 original survival voyage, Tim Jarvis also recognises the effectiveness of an inclusive approach. Wendy Tuck cites the effectiveness of a democratic approach. And in maritime survival situations, Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakof (1) also credit democracy in the form of shared workloads and an accountable democratically chosen leader, as essential to group survival.

But despite singing their praises for inclusive leadership styles, there is also a consensus that in fast-paced and dangerous situations, a more authoritative style of leadership is also required. ‘The bottom line is that in times of crises, you need someone to make decisions, rapidly,’ says John. ‘So it morphs from the team being inclusive to the team having trust in the various roles and responsibilities, including the leader. When the proverbial hits the fan, the leader can make a decision, and the crew doesn’t have to second guess.’

Although it’s also clear that the overuse of an authoritarian style can limit a team’s potential by stifling diversity and constructive conflict (covered in this earlier post), John believes there’s plenty of examples of ‘underperforming organisations, whether it’s a sailing team or a company or a sporting team, where things are too dictatorial, and they’re underutilising the potential of the people involved’.

Finally, and in addition to democratic, inclusive, coaching, and occasionally authoritative approaches, John also stresses the importance of visionary leadership. While Wendy Tuck suggests that ‘charismatic leadership always helps’, in what may be a reflection of Australian culture, both John and Jimmy Spithill also impress the importance of allowing teams to have a little fun. ‘Life is too short not to!’ says Jimmy.



A few words about this blog series:

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 through this blog series, I’ve set out to explore some of the most important and universally applicable leadership lessons from the oceans.  

Based on existing research, interviews with some very well-credentialed sailors and my own observations, I’ll be posting weekly, covering trust, communication, diversity, culture, leadership styles and team formation. I wanted to include a breadth of insight from the different extremes of sailing, so you’ll be hearing from legendary America’s Cup winning skippers, a skipper charged with leading largely amateur crews through some of the world’s most dangerous oceans, and a man who re-enacted one of history’s greatest survival voyages.

Occasionally I still see some of the concepts that will be covered in this series – such as trust and diversity – considered ‘fluffy’, nice ideas, luxuries that are secondary to a team’s core business. So by showcasing their importance in such punishing, competitive, life-threatening, and typically masculine environments, I hope to prove their worth. 



  1. Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, No Mercy – True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality, 2013  

Cover photo: The youngest ever crew to compete in the notorious Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht race.