Business Leadership Lessons From Ocean Racing

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Mission Performance delivers integrated learning solutions that build your internal people capability, helping you solve strategic challenges and exploit specific opportunities. We work as a partnership of highly experienced and diverse leaders and blend a range of complementary approaches with research and tools to deliver extraordinary solutions for our clients globally.
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Ocean Racing and Leadership

A study of teams tackling the toughest and longest ocean race around the planet has revealed valuable lessons for business.

The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race takes non-professional sailors, many of whom are complete novices before they complete their training, and teams them up with professional skippers aboard twelve identical yachts which compete in a year-long battle around the globe in one of the most challenging, fast changing environments imaginable. The only performance differentiators are teamwork, leadership, a good strategy and faultless execution.

The challenges are countless and may well sound familiar in many organisations, from creating teams of people comprising diverse backgrounds, to coping with unpredictable, fast changing, and volatile operating conditions, maintaining morale and providing motivation when the team is up against it.

The Clipper Race worked with its training and development partner Mission Performance to study the interaction between skippers and crew during the last global series. Mission Performance is a professional development consultancy which 14 years’ experience of taking performance lessons from extreme environments. In the 2013-14 edition of the race they undertook a study which sought to correlate leadership and team behaviours, practices, attributes, beliefs and the mindset of teams, to their performance; this was defined in a balanced way, not just by race rankings, but also by crew wellbeing and sustainability, including resilience, innovation and learning.

The study also examined how teams adapted and evolved their strategies to not only respond to changes but also to use change to their advantage; the best ways to bounce back from major setbacks and crises; sustaining performance and managing underperformance; and how skippers enabled crew to perform without burning themselves out.

The results were comprehensive and complex and essentially fell into three categories: the things all leaders did; the things that set winning leaders apart; and the things that the crew did to secure team success and performance. One overall finding was that to win it is important to do the basics exceptionally well in terms of behaviours, beliefs and attitudes. The researchers called them the ‘World-class Basics of Team Performance’.

These are some brief insights:

  • It’s important for leaders to have the right mindset by demonstrating that they care about the team (crew) by inviting challenges and genuinely believing they can learn from all, by showing humility and having the courage to be vulnerable.
  • Leaders must choose the right mood in order to maintain morale and regulate their emotions to build confidence and trust.
  • Adopting an open learning mindset is very powerful for leaders and their teams (Crew). This enables them to avoid a blame culture and exploit mistakes and mishaps quickly as a source of learning and competitive advantage.
  • Leaders who create clarity on their intent can also help teams thrive through empowerment, initiative and innovation.
  • The best leaders develop a coaching culture, creating a ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ for learning and continuous improvement. Calibrating the ‘authority gradient’ helps to strike the right balance between challenging, which leads to better solutions, and getting on with implementing those solutions.
  • Use shared values to put team ego before individual ego, by eliciting and aligning individual goals to one common purpose, which builds teams who excel at collaboration.
  • The difference between a ‘good’ leader and a ‘great’ leader is that the latter creates great leadership which is shared.
  • The podium finishers created ‘magic’ through agility, resilience and a performance orientation.