Leadership lessons from clipper round the world yacht race

The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race is one of the toughest endurance tests of its kind.

Whilst most round the world yacht races are undertaken by professional sailors. The Clipper Round the World Race is open to anyone. People like you and I. No previous sailing experience necessary. The race organisers provide training, a 68-ft racing yacht, a skipper and you’re good to go!

The race is the brainchild of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who in 1969 became the first person to perform a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe.

The race makes up 8 legs, 6 ocean crossings, over 40, 000 nautical miles and visits 15 ports around the world.

  • Portugal
  • China
  • Brazil
  • Panama
  • South Africa
  • USA
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • New Zealand
  • Northern Ireland
  • Indonesia
  • The Netherlands
  • Singapore

Clearly this race is not for sissys! Just listen to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston talking about his favourite leg of the race.

Three Winning Behaviours: Alignment, Capability and Autonomy

Reflecting on the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race from a leadership perspective one has to ask, “how do you lead a team to success in one of the toughest challenges know to man?”

Trudi West, a researcher from Ashridge Business School had the same question. In 2013 she studied the performance of teams taking part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Her goal was to identify exactly what behaviours and skills proved to be most effective in achieving success.

winning behaviours model

As illustrated above, Trudi ’s research identified three key behaviours that made a real difference in the performance of teams:

  • Alignment: The combination of common identity and common intent. The challenge of multiple expectations was met by the skippers who were able to draw people together and then move them towards objectives shared by most people on board
  • Capability: The development of skills and processes required to lead, learn and live together. Capability developed when skippers met challenges with clear and consistent processes which reduced friction and uncertainty
  • Autonomy: The degree to which a crew have discretion to organise themselves. Based on trust, it was generally supported in line with the needs of the crew; however there were negative outcomes when there was too much or not enough autonomy.

These three behaviours are critical to team performance.

Alignment: The Pursuit of Common Objectives

A boat doesn’t go forward if each one is rowing their own way. — Swahili Proverb

Alignment around a common set of goals and objectives is critical for team performance. It’s important that these be common objectives, objectives shaped and committed to by all members of the team. Objectives are not to be imposed, top-down on the team.

Team members were motivated as they understood and participated in shaping their outcomes, they understood the team purpose. The result? Each team members took ownership, personal responsibility for team outcomes.

Capability: The Ability to Learn Together

”Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” — Vince Lombardi

Once the team understood their purpose, the next challenge was for the team to develop the capabilities needed to complete the race. This required learning the technical skills necessary to sail the yachts, along with the social skills needed to learn and live together. Learning to live and work together is essential for success.

Autonomy: The Discretion to Self-Organise

“Trust is knowing that when a team member does push you, they’re doing it because they care about the team.” — Patrick Lencioni

Developing a sense of autonomy in teams is a delicate balance. Too little autonomy left teams feeling frustrated. Whereas too much autonomy left teams feeling unsupported, a case of every man for them self.

Teams with appropriate levels of autonomy allowed the skipper to step back and focus on race strategy, whilst allowing the team to self-organise and decide how they would work together. The result? Autonomous teams were agile — quick to respond to changing conditions.

Your Turn

”Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” – Henry Ford

Reflecting on the three key behaviours of high performing teams. Consider the following:

  • Is your team committed to a common purpose and set of objectives?
  • Is your team learning together, sharing ideas, best practices, whilst learning to live well together?
  • Is your team free to self-organise in response to changing circumstances?

What three actions are you going to take over the next few weeks to improve your teams performance?