On 17 March 1968, the British newspaper Sunday Times announced a race that had never been done before, the “Golden Globe”. The trophy was to be won by the first person to complete the round-the-world single-handed, unassisted, non-stop, single-handed race around the world by boat. There was a second prize of five thousand pounds for the fastest (competitors could set off on different dates).
In the end, there were nine competitors, but let’s focus on three:
Let’s start with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first to arrive and the only one to finish the race. He received both the Golden Globe and prize money and was made a Sir in 1995 for this and his subsequent contributions to British sailing and society.
The runner-up, Bernard Moitessier, started two months later than Knox-Johnston but was going much faster. When he was close to overtaking him, he shocked the organisers and the media following the race by announcing that he would not finish, that he was not interested in the prizes and that he wanted to continue his journey in a second non-stop round the world race, of which he made another two thirds, setting a new sailing record. Finally, he stopped in Tahiti where he wrote a book and became a myth for sailors.
The third, Donald Crowhurst, did not complete the course, staying in an undetermined position in the Atlantic Ocean and avoiding reaching the South where the westerly winds, known as the Roaring Forties, make sailing dangerous. It is not known for sure whether it was the lack of preparation of his boat or his lack of experience, probably both, that made him stay hidden, sending messages with false positions of his boat and keeping two logbooks, one with the real positions and the other with the false ones that he was communicating to the race organisers. In the last radio communication, he was informed that if he continued at the speed he indicated, he would be the winner of the prize money and that they were organising a big reception for him in the harbour. He was also told that they had noticed some inconsistencies in his passage and would check it in detail. His trimaran was eventually discovered abandoned in the middle of the ocean with a confusing suicide note. It is assumed that he jumped overboard.
Managers in organisations are like those solo sailors, the higher up the career ladder you go, the more critical your decisions will be and the more alone you will feel in making them, especially when it comes to choosing the least bad solution.
But what kind of manager are you?
A Knox-Johnston who completes the mission from start to finish, overcomes all adversity and wins both reputation and prize.
A Moitessier who bends the rules, doesn’t care what others say, pursues what makes him happy, breaks the unassisted solo long distance record and remains a myth for all romantic sailors.
A Donald Crowhurst who is determined to achieve his goals but when he can’t make it halfway, he hides his failures, pretends he is making progress, until reality sets in. He can’t stand the pressure and produces a greater evil.
I think that all managers have some of all three, the key is in what proportion.
If in a business environment we want to be more like the first with a little of the second and none of the third, what do we have to do? How do we prepare ourselves for when we reach those responsibilities?
Well, the first thing is to be aware that in order to be able to participate in a non-stop, solo round-the-world trip, that is, to have a great responsibility in a company, we must have a lot of previous sailing experience, know the boats and their handling well and have experienced different situations, from placid downwind sailing to sailing in 40-knot winds and six-metre waves.
The people in charge of companies, departments and members of steering committees are big ocean sailors. They handle smaller or larger ships, but they will all face challenges in relation to their length.
That is why it is essential that companies invest continuously in developing people who manage teams from the first positions of supervisors, team leaders, etc., up to general management positions, so that they can meet these challenges.
And many companies already do this, and many people who do not get development in their company, get it by doing courses or MBA’s that include sessions on management skills and leadership. But, after so many years as a People Director in international companies, I am convinced that we have to go beyond these types of sessions. They have to move from being conceptual and theoretical to being action-oriented and experiential. People with team responsibilities have to move to different environments where they can understand and practice what we know about leadership and management.
Because the only way to train in leadership is to lead, and if we are training, it is better to do it in a place where we can clearly feel the mistakes we make without affecting our company and its profit and loss account.
Can you imagine a place where leadership can be trained very well? Yes, that’s right, on a ship. Being the captain of a real ship, no metaphors, and making a real voyage, not a theoretical one, but not to be confused with nautical gymkhanas, you need to be accompanied by an expert in leadership and team management with personal experience in highly demanding business environments.
How do you select the people who accompany you? How do you coordinate all the tasks? How do you manage the good performance of some people and the poor performance of others? How do you communicate bad news? How do you resolve conflicts? When you and your team fail at a particular point, how do you restore the team’s motivation? How quickly do you get back to 100% energy to keep sailing? If your team is junior, do you have to be more directive or delegate more? In what situations do you have to get into the detail of an expert’s work? etc.
These are the same questions that anyone who manages a team asks themselves. Maybe yours are different, you have other priorities, but that’s what it’s all about: learning and practising live what will raise the level of your current performance as a team manager, which will have a positive impact on the performance of your team and will prepare you to one day take on the challenge of going around the world, non-stop and alone, if you set your mind to it. What happens after that is up to you.