Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Ocean: Trust

Introductory note:

Sailing, whether for survival or competition, is an unforgiving business. Confined in close quarters, crew members are utterly reliant on each other, and a heavy weight of responsibility falls on the skipper’s shoulders. 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. There is no place for ‘fluff’ on the ocean, so when these concepts are credited for survival or triumph in these extreme situations, I believe it is great validation that they are at the core of a team’s success and are not dispensable luxuries. 


Vulnerability, responsibility and time are key to the development of trust among high-performing teams on the water. 

 

Trust is perhaps the most heralded element of an effective team, and it’s therefore the most logical place to kick off this exploration of leadership on the water. Patrick Lencioni (1), an authority on team effectiveness from the business world, suggests that the absence of trust is a crippling team dysfunction. And it’s an observation that rings true in the most extreme situations on the water as well.

A study by Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff (2) of groups who have survived maritime disasters provides a rather grim example of the importance of trust. Survivor groups that demonstrated a total absence of trust, allowing the weak to die to save the strong, were less likely to survive. Tim Jarvis, an adventurer who re-enacted Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 incredible survival voyage, sailing from the Antarctic continent to South Georgia Island in an open boat, agrees that ‘trust is very, very important’ in such circumstances.

But while trust is an easily understood and straightforward concept, its establishment isn’t necessarily easy, nor can it be taken for granted. Patrick Lencioni (1) believes that an inability to develop trust stems from team members’ ‘unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group’. Tim Jarvis echoes this, stressing how critical it was that his crew members were open with him and each other during the years of preparation preceding the adventure. And in my own experience leading a youth crew in the notorious Sydney to Hobart Yacht race, I saw that it was only when crew members were willing to be open, even making themselves vulnerable by admitting their limitations, that a level of trust was established allowing us to operate as an effective team.  

Then there’s a consensus among a number of successful sailing leaders that a notion to the effect of responsibility is critical to the development of trust. The skipper of two America’s Cup winning teams Jimmy (James) Spithill puts it simply, suggesting that trust is achieved ‘by giving responsibility and by accountability’. Another legendary America’s Cup winning skipper John Bertrand builds on this, suggesting that, ‘It’s how you conduct yourself. It’s a sense of authenticity. It revolves around honesty and integrity, transparency and communication.’

However, it’s also clear that these first two elements require a third thing: time. In the words of John Bertrand: ‘Time is fundamentally important, and the quality of time. You can’t dial up the concept of trust without time’. Jimmy Spithill agrees ‘it [trust] is time-dependent,’ as does winning around the world Clipper Race skipper Wendy Tuck. In her challenging role leading largely amateur crews through some of the world’s most dangerous waters, Wendy says that it’s the accumulation of runs on the board, over time, that allows the crew to have faith in her. 

 

 

  1. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, 2002
  2. Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, No Mercy – True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality, 2013 

 

Cover photo: Tim Jarvis and his crew in the Southern Ocean, Si Wagen.