How to lead in challenging times
Leadership guru, polar explorer and ocean racer Manley Hopkinson shares his experience of facing down a storm, and how his leadership skills helped his team power through
I will never forget 18 October 2000. I was competing in the BT Global Challenge – the world’s toughest yacht race – and my crew were all amateurs. Eight of them had never sailed before in their lives. And all of us were about to face our first hurricane.
Hurricane Michael was forecast with 90mph winds and waves of over 100 feet. But I had made up my mind not to run away from the storm, but to attack it. I wanted to take an aggressive line and steer into the side of the hurricane towards the eye, tack out at the last moment and benefit from the big winds being behind us to take the lead in the race.
To do this, I needed the full emotional commitment of all of my crew. And I emphasise the emotional aspect of that commitment: it had to come from deep within their core. To do that meant me utilising the key characteristics of compassionate leadership:
Take time to gain commitment
I spent time with the team and with individuals to make sure they could express their concerns, understand the plan and its implications and align their personal journeys with the collective one. That meant plenty of one-to-ones with each team member, followed by a couple of powerful workshops sharing and debating how we would work together most effectively.
Have clarity of mission and purpose
The plan to attack Hurricane Michael needed to align with our overall mission and purpose, and it did. That’s because we had invested time early on to develop a central mission that all the team could buy into.
Understand and tap into each person’s deep motivational needs
It’s vital to recognise that we are all motivated differently and therefore have different needs and respond to different motivational language. Using the ‘Three Needs’ motivational model developed by American psychologist David McClelland in the 1950s, I spoke in terms of achievement, affiliation and influence in order to gain their commitment: “If we attack, we come out in first place.” “Attacking the hurricane can only be done by a strong team and that’s what you are.” “I need volunteers to help join my storm strategy group to be part of the decision-making process.”
Focus not just on the task in hand
I also had to think about the more general needs of the team and the individuals within it. This reflects John Adair’s model of Action Centred Leadership that I was introduced to when I joined the Royal Navy. As we approached Hurricane Michael, I sketched the three interlocking circles of the model on the side of my chart as a reminder. A leader has to balance the needs of achieving the task, building the team and developing the individual.
To empower others creates a legacy, ready for the next crisis. Yes, I can steer a boat through a storm, I can trim the sails to best advantage, I can make all the decisions. But if I do that, then who will grow, who will learn? My leadership challenge to you is not to do the job you can do, but to do the one you should be doing – and this is to lead!
The result? We attacked Hurricane Michael and burst through the ferocious winds and seas into first place.
A few days later, Tropical Storm Nadine was between us and Buenos Aires. She wasn’t quite as big as Michael, but she was growing bigger by the day. So, what do you think the storm strategy was for the rest of the fleet in the race? Yup, they all attacked Nadine. For Hurricane Michael, only one other boat had followed us in but, for Nadine, the waters were crowded as we jostled for position, closing in on the eye of the storm.
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