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02.20.13

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

Leading Forum
The iconic Sydney to Hobart Race, a 723-mile deepwater challenge—often called the "Everest" of offshore ocean racing—is considered one of the toughest in the world. Unpredictable weather and seas make each race demanding, but in 1998, an unexpected "weather bomb" hit the fleet, creating 80-foot waves and 100-mile-per-hour winds.

Many bigger, better-equipped boats tried to maneuver around the storm, but the crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler chose to head directly into its path. After battling mountainous waves and hurricane-force winds in the Bass Strait, the tiny 35-foot boat arrived safely in Hobart, 3 days and 16 hours later—winning the coveted Tattersall’s Cup.


There are two central themes in Into the Storm. 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 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 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.

Adrienne Cahalan, 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.

Cahalan characterized the leader's role this way:

"Skippers need to keep the team focused. 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 working toward their 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 storm—or a tough business obstacle—calls for exceptional leadership.

The leader needs to demonstrate passion.

The leader's passion is a magnetic force that pulls other people in. Describing the impact of Ed's enthusiasm, one crewmember observed:

"What makes Ed an exceptional leader is his desire 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 have a close relationship. They have 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:

"Their leadership played a large part in making sure that no one gave up. 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, and he 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 on a daily basis, 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.

Mix Bencsik reflected:

"I've been through a lot of storms with Ed. Sitting on the side of the boat—wave spotting while he was helming -- 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.
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Into the Storm
Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race is by by Dennis N.T. Perkins with Jillian B. Murphy. Dennis N.T. Perkins is CEO of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping leaders and teams thrive under conditions of adversity, uncertainty and change. Follow Dennis on Twitter @DNTP Jillian B. Murphy is the director of client services at Syncretics. She works in the areas of leadership, executive coaching, and team effectiveness. Follow her on Twitter @jbmurf For more information please visit syncreticsgroup.com.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 10:44 PM
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Michael,

You offer a wonderful example of Team Leadership in this post. I would not have related this style of leadership with such a race, but the effectiveness demonstrated by this method is beyond question - at least for the crew of the Midnight Rambler. I wonder if a Team Leadership style can be effective with a virtual team?

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