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Leadership secrets from the sea

Updated: Mar 1, 2019

#1 – The simple trick to empower anyone you lead.



I was talking last week to the BBC about understanding what motivates a team and as a leader how to create the environment in which motivation thrives and positively sizzles!


I was reminded of a story of a dark and stormy night when I was skippering a boat in the Clipper round the world yacht race. A night that I learnt the hard impact of a simple influence trick.


We were in the Southern Ocean. It's a magical, awesome and brutal place, thousands of miles from land and it was blowing dogs of chains, as it always does there. One dark night my amateur crew were on deck with our biggest sail flying (our heavyweight spinnaker for you sailors out there!). I had gone below to check the forecast. Suddenly the rope that was holding the spinnaker up snapped and the tennis-court sized sail plunged in to the sea. Still attached at the front of the boat the rushing sea caught the sail like a trawler net and the boat lurched suddenly into a hard deceleration as the sail filled with water, acting like a huge sea anchor. I slid wildly across the nav table and caught myself on a bulkhead. I could feel our speed had dropped from the wild racing surfing pace to a comparative snail’s pace and the boat was now bucking wildly in the huge waves. The amateur crew, who had been on the boat for only a couple of months were up on deck on their own! I reached for my lifejacket and scrambled to get myself up on deck.

We knew we couldn’t cut the sail free as we didn’t have another so recovering it back on deck before it damaged itself, the boat or ourselves was essential. The lines still attached to it were under huge loads.


As the (then only) professional sailor onboard and as the leader I knew the solution, I had seen this before and I had the plan, right?


I emerged on deck into the roaring darkness and when I arrived at the bow (the front of the boat) my headtorch picked out the deck crew all leaning over the edge of the boat, clipped on, each holding a handful of the edge of the stricken sail. One of the crew, the person I had put in charge of the bow work, was calling through the howling din to the crew to heave in unison. I stopped in my tracks, this was crazy! You can’t haul a sail this size out of the water I thought, there must be tonnes of water in it. The usual way to recover this situation was to take a line around the middle of the sail and winch it up out of the water. But sure enough it looked like the crew were recovering a few inches at a time using their freezing fingers to haul it out. But this method was going to take quite some time if it was going to work at all.


Did I step in, stop them and switch plans. Or did I let the crew member, who I had delegated the job of leading this part of the boat, keep sorting out this mammoth alien problem which had landed on her patch? People can be quite extraordinary when they have the opportunity to shine.


So I asked her

“Where do you want me?”


“Down there by the shrouds” she replied, so I stepped in line and we hauled that spinnaker back on board bit by bit.


What I lost that day was probably a mile or two but what I gained was a bow leader and team who I had truly empowered and I hadn’t reneged on my delegated responsibility. As a result the bow team worked autonomously, super creatively and were, through the shared triumph of the result, motivated even further to deliver. I made up so many more miles over the rest of the year’s race. And on reflection, what did I promise myself I would always do from then on?


Simply ask a question,rather than give a solution or an opinion.


That is it


Just ask a question


They say leaders listen so to all the leaders out there I challenge you today to step up your listening by another notch for just one day. Make your everyday listening great today. Every time you go to speak, check whether you can ask a question instead. And listen even more carefully to the answer. Do it for a day and see what comes of it.


Fair winds!


Vicky

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© Vicky Ellis 2019