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Into the Storm: A Real-World Lesson on Leadership and Teamwork

August 11, 2013

Storm 2 Picture yourself in a small 35 foot sailing boat, looking up at waves 80 feet tall, salt spray stinging your face like a sand-blaster.

Your boat goes weightless as you fly off the edge of a wave, crashing down 30 feet into what feels like concrete.

People in other boats have gone overboard; members of your crew have broken bones and been severely gashed. Here’s some of the final tally:

• Six people died
• 24 boats were wrecked or abandoned
• 55 sailors were pulled from the sea by the coast guard

No, you didn’t set out for a leisurely cruise, only to get caught in a storm. You’re competing in one of the world’s most dangerous sailing races: the Sydney to Hobart, Tasmania, Tattersall’s Cup. The 1998 Hobart race proved to be the most dangerous of all the ones held.

Author and sailor Dennis Perkins takes the reader on a harrowing journey, vividly describing the race–the various characters and the incredible feats of human bravery. He then shifts gears, translating the experience into practical and highly relevant leadership and teamwork lessons, especially valuable for those working in organizations that are trying to adapt to a relentlessly changing world.

Dennis Perkins has spent much of his life around oceans. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, he also competed in the 2006 Sydney to Hobart race. He is the CEO of The Syncretics Group, a consultancy focused on building leadership and team skills to enable people to thrive in conditions of rapid and volatile change. Jillian Murphy is the Director of Client Services at The Syncretics Group.

At its core, Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race is about shared leadership and effective teamwork. It’s what drew me to it because of my background as a long-time student of leadership and my work to advocate the practice of shared leadership. Perkins uses the expression distributed leadership, but it’s the same concept. Using an experiential learning event, in this case adventure racing, +provides us with valuable real-life lessons in leadership and teamwork under extremely adverse conditions. This is where the human condition prevails.

Perkins photo Perkins organizes his book into two main parts. Part One is the story of the AFR Midnight Rambler whose crew competed in the Sydney to Hobart race. The 27 very short chapters begin with setting the stage: the main characters, some technical aspects of sailing and the lead-up to the race. Once well into Part One, I became drawn into the violent storm that developed and the disastrous effects on the crews of the different boats.

Perkins places the reader into the eye of the storm, describing in detail the desperate voices over the radios from the various sailing crews. Helicopters searched for sailors tossed overboard; boats rolled and two, the Winston Churchill and the Sword of Orion, sank. Bob Thomas, a master mariner who was steering the Rambler, was torn from the helm three times and thrown into the cockpit. At one point he turned the helm over to Ed Psaltis so that he could brief the crew on how to calmly abandon ship which seemed likely. That situation never arrived fortunately for the Rambler crew, which remained focused, steadfast and calm during the storm. And in the end they persevered.

In the concluding chapter in Part One, Perkins notes the subsequent successes of the Ramblers after winning the Tattersall’s Cup. For example, they won the 1999 Lord Howe Island Race which takes place northeast of Sydney. Similar to 1998, the race conditions were exceedingly nasty. In 2001, the AFR Midnight Rambler won the Bird Island Race. And by 2009 the crew had won every East Coast race in Australia but for one exception, the Sydney Gold Coast Yacht Race.

Perkins explains that what enabled the Rambler’s crew to eventually prevail and win the race was its “seamless precision,” which formed the foundation for its strong teamwork. He then shifts gears in Part Two, where he lays out a framework for team success. He presents 10 critical strategies, starting with “Make the team the rock star.” By this he means creating a “flat management” structure in which everyone on the crew had a say. There were no rock stars or prima donnas on the Rambler who had special status or who could supersede others. This feature proved invaluable when the Rambler was caught in the middle of the violent storm.

His strategy “Prepare, prepare, prepare” draws from his military experience and emphasizes the importance of developing a team checklist. His strategy “Relentless learning” is one with special meaning for me. Perkins identifies three key concepts:

1. Capacity to take action

2. Capacity to reflect and gain insight

3. Capacity to share learnings

ocean-storm Developing these three capacities are hugely important to the success of organizations in a brutally global economy, where volatility, turbulence and uncertainty prevail. At the end of the chapter on learning Perkins lists five key questions under what he calls “navigation points.” The questions comprise such issues as: does your team discuss its mistakes in addition to its successes; are team members free to speak up; and are team members rewarded for being innovative.

His chapter on Calculated Risk (strategy #5, Be willing to sail into the storm) is especially good. He lists seven tactics for “Teamwork at the Edge.” For example, he talks about being realistic about a team’s capabilities. As he states, “Not every boat should sail into every storm. But boats that have the capability to deal with big waves should be willing to sail into the storm when the time is right.” This is a strong metaphor for companies competing in today’s economy: know when to step into the storm.

Another tactic, for example, is getting everyone on board and then committing 100%. This proved to be extremely important to the Rambler’s crew when facing the storm because they were aligned with their leader.

Seven navigation points are presented by Perkins at the end of this chapter to underscore the importance of calculated risk. He poses questions covering such issues as conducting a realistic assessment, demonstrating situational awareness, and separating emotions from rational assessment.

Perkins’ succinct final chapter is entitled “A Note to the Skipper.” Here he brings things full circle in just a few pages, starting with the power of distributed leadership and exceptional teamwork. He speaks to team alignment, passion demonstrated by the team leader, optimism and confidence, and the role the leader plays in setting the example.

This book is highly readable. It’s a true adventure story but with hugely relevant lessons and applications to today’s business environment. Take the time to check it out.

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.

– Dennis N. T. Perkins

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Dave Graham permalink
    August 12, 2013 12:55 am

    Nice piece with great reflection. I am going to have to read this book.

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