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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Monday 22 Jul 2013
Leadership lessons from the Round the World Yacht Race

Leadership lessons from the Round the World Yacht Race

Leadership lessons from the Round the World Yacht Race

Fresh insights into the leadership behaviours that lead to outstanding team performance have been revealed in Ashridge Business School research into the experience of skippers and crews taking part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

The study examines the challenges faced by skippers as they led their crews on a 12-month circumnavigation of the globe, covering 40,000 miles and visiting 13 countries. This new research examines what business leaders can learn from the experience.

Ten identical 68ft yachts took part in the race, with a mix of professional sailors and amateurs drawn from different walks of life and with ages ranging from teenagers to those in their 70s. This diverse group had to eat, sleep, live and work together in cramped and often wet and cold conditions. They had to cope with adverse weather, threatening conditions and overwhelming tiredness due to both physical exertion and disrupted sleep.

Although life on board sounds a long way from our working lives, many of these challenges are on a par with those faced by leaders in today's harsh, pressurised and unpredictable business environment. Researchers conducted a series of over 75 interviews with 42 people at key points in the race to expose the leadership lessons that can be drawn from experience on the high seas.

The report 'The challenge of leading: Insights from the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race' examined leadership, team-building and motivational challenges for those leading under pressure and identifies three 'winning' behaviours - alignment, capability and autonomy - which made a real difference to the performance of the teams:

Alignment: the ability to meet multiple expectations and draw people together in pursuit of common objectives.

Capability: the ability to develop clear and consistent processes that reduce friction and uncertainty and enable people to work and learn together.

Autonomy: the ability to build trust and give people the discretion to organise themselves appropriately within a broad framework.

When these three behaviours were applied in relation to each other, teams were inspired to put in an 'awesome' effort. When they were over or under-developed, teams experienced friction, which slowed people down, impaired the overall agility of the team or lead to the development of 'teams within teams'.

Trudi West, researcher at Ashridge Business School, said: "Faced with a prolonged period of uncertainty and change, effective team leadership becomes critical. There is no such thing as plain sailing in business during these economically turbulent times. Facing daily challenges in harsh and tumultuous conditions is what we have come to expect in an environment where there is no such thing as 'business as usual'.

The research also shed light on the way leaders and managers view the command and control style of leadership. In organisations, it is generally seen as a top down, tightly managed process that allows little room for autonomy or free will. The experience on board, however, suggests that if command and control is reframed to reflect the way it is used in the military environment, it can provide a powerful tool for leading people in difficult times.

The research also looks in detail at the key leadership challenges faced by skippers, and the eight key leadership lessons that can be applied to today's challenging business environment.

Winning skipper of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race Richard Hewson said: "The biggest thing I've learnt is how to manage people. It is up to you to try and manage your crew, stimulating and teaching them without the ability to give them any reward or punishment. To learn how to do that and have these management skills gained from the Clipper Race means that I can now go into pretty much any company and manage a very large team."

Trudi West (pictured) is a researcher at Ashridge Business School