Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race

A timely and stormy guest post by Dennis Perkins:

There are two central themes in my book Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race.

The first is the importance of exceptional teamwork in overcoming challenges at The Edge. The second is the value of distributed leadership — a team culture that allows every person to provide direction when he or she has expertise that will help the team succeed.

The story of one boat, the AFR Midnight Rambler, exemplifies the power of exceptional teamwork and distributed leadership. But where does this leave a formal team leader — the skipper of a boat, the CEO of a corporation, the commanding officer of military unit, or the President of the United States, for that matter? Is there a unique role that he or she needs to play? I believe there are some critical things — some unique responsibilities — that fall to the skipper.

The leader needs to keep the team aligned.

The varied performance of boats in the Sydney to Hobart Race — particularly in 1998 — underscores the importance of having a coherent, unified team. Some boats, like the Midnight Rambler, demonstrated extraordinary cohesiveness even under the most terrifying, life-threatening conditions. At the other end of the alignment continuum, some crews were fragmented, with key team members at odds with each other — in a leadership vacuum.

Other boats, were somewhere in the middle. The owners could impose their will on the crew, and everyone might acquiesce to their decision. But this is not the same level of alignment that we saw in the Rambler. Resigned acquiescence is not the same as aligned commitment, and gaining that commitment requires leadership.

Adrienne Cahalan, considered one the world’s best navigators, has had a chance to observe the role of the leader in more than twenty-five years as a professional competitive sailor. She has been named Australian Yachtswoman of the Year twice — and has been nominated four times for World Yachtswoman of the Year.

Adrienne characterized the leader’s role:

“Skippers need to keep the team focused and pull everybody together. They need to keep an eye out to see if someone is wavering, or a faction developing. They need to have the skill to manage all the personalities, to bring them together and to get them focused on the common goal. Not everybody’s perfect, so a good leader is able to deal with imperfections. And they need to be able to do it all under pressure.”
Managing personalities and bringing people together can be challenging in any situation. But the pressure of a race — or, even worse, a storm — calls for exceptional leadership.

The leader needs to demonstrate passion.

The leader’s passion is a magnetic force that pulls other people in. And the passion of Ed Psaltis, skipper of the Midnight Rambler, stands out.

Describing the impact of Ed’s will to win, crew newcomer Samantha Byron said:

“No boat had ever won both the Blue Water Point Score and the Short Ocean Point Score in the same year. It was a bold goal that had never been achieved before. But it was Ed’s vision, and it became the team vision, and then it became my vision.”

“I think what makes Ed an exceptional leader is his complete drive to win. He is committed to driving the boat as fast as it can go. And he can take risks because of his comfort and trust in the team.”

No one who has ever sailed with Ed Psaltis has any doubt about his absolute, total commitment to winning. He is so passionate that his excitement sometimes needs to be offset — by humor, or by the composure of others. But there is no mistaking the electric spark that comes from a leader who is excited to win. That enthusiasm is contagious, and it is a contagion that leads to victory.

The leader needs to instill optimism and confidence that the team will succeed.

Ed Psaltis and navigator Bob Thomas had a close relationship — reminiscent of Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild, the second in command on the Endurance Expedition. They had complementary personalities, with Bob’s cool demeanor balancing Ed’s passion.

Both Ed and Bob joined forces during the storm, and their combined leadership provided a reassuring presence for the crew. Crew member Mix Bencsik recalls:

“The leadership example set by Ed and Bob was quite symbolic. Their leadership played a large part in keeping our motivation going, and in making sure that no one gave up.”

“Bob is a noble seaman by trade. He understands storms, and he has been through a lot at sea. We have a lot of confidence in his ability.”

“Ed and Bob constantly instilled optimism and confidence that we could handle the conditions, and that the crew had the ability to win.”

While there was no question about Ed’s formal role as skipper, Ed and Bob together reinforced a sense of unified leadership. And because of their close personal relationship, they were able to send a joint message of reassurance and optimism.

The leader needs to set an example.

Ed realizes that people are watching him in his role as the skipper and makes a conscious effort to set an example. Coming off his watch as helmsman, Ed will take a forward position on the rail. In this exposed position, he is subjected to the first onslaught of water and spray. It is cold and uncomfortable, but it is clear that Ed is not afraid to do his share.

Ed will also take his turn in “the bad bunk.” It seems that every boat comes equipped with a berth that — for one reason or another — is undesirable. Nobody wants the bad bunk, but Ed makes sure that he takes his turn. He is sending a message.

Leaders need to set an example through lifestyle and the normal course of simply getting the job done. But there are some moments that are different. There are times when leaders need to inspire others though fortitude, courage, and skill. One such moment came for Ed Psaltis in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race.

I spoke with Mix about his impressions of the ’98 race, and he described this vivid moment:

“I’ve been through a lot of storms with Ed. Sitting on the side of the boat — wave spotting while he was helming in those conditions — was something that made me feel really proud. I thought, Here’s a person who has my life completely in his hands. He was performing extraordinary feats of strength and seamanship, holding a 35-foot boat on the right course in those conditions.”

“Ed was giving more than 110 percent. The well-being of the boat and crew were in his hands, and he didn’t falter. It was an outstanding feat of seamanship. Even to this day, it’s quite emotional to talk about. That was his finest moment.”

Not every leader has the ability to steer a boat through a storm like Ed Psaltis. But there comes a time when every leader needs to be willing to step up and give “more than 110 percent.” For every leader, there can be a finest moment.

Author Bio:
Dennis N.T. Perkins, author of Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race, is the author of Leading at The Edge and CEO of Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping leaders and teams thrive under conditions of adversity, uncertainty, and change. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, he successfully completed his first Sydney Hobart Race in 2006.
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