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Learning to Sail

Having studied and taken part in a variety of expeditions on both land and sea over the past 18 years and as the Official Learning and Development partner for the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race we feel qualified enough to recommend Sailing as one of the most powerful learning tools to affect long-term behaviour change in teams and leaders.

Extreme environments make cruel, yet effective teachers. None more so than the open oceans. No other sporting or expeditionary pursuit provides such a direct link between technical competence, behavioural skill and performance. Our research into the Clipper Round the World Yacht races tells us that technical competence is merely the entry requirement. To compete, however, requires discipline, leadership and teamwork.

  • The discipline to hone basic manoeuvres into habitual world-class actions
  • The confidence to promote leadership as a responsibility for all on board
  • The conscious decision to commit yourself totally to the objectives of the team above those of the individual

It is when these three components are combined with technical competence that race winning crews are forged.

Why is sailing such a good coach?

Feedback and Review

Boat speed and feel provide regular and objective feedback on how well teams are working. Teams will be able to feel their success and with reviews be able to practice and replicate this success. When we work with the skippers we ask them to identify a moment when they have been successful. We then ask them to write down all the reasons why they were so successful, so they can repeat it. In one previous race, only one of the 12 skippers could identify ‘the why’ and he ended up winning the race.

VUCA mindset

Wind, weather and tide all combine to complicate your plans. As in business, it is those that are the first to understand, adapt and respond to external events that will succeed. Rigid plans and ill-prepared people will fail quickly. Sailing provides the perfect vehicle to exercise leaders and teams in how to prepare themselves and their teams to harness such uncertainty and use it to exploit opportunities quicker than their competition. A flexible mindset and approach are key. Race winning crews build VUCA (Volatility-Uncertainty-Complexity-Ambiguity) into their plans and move the odds in their favour by training and honing their basic technical and behavioural skills to adapt faster to external events and trends.


Where do you add the greatest value as a leader?

The most impressive of the Clipper Skippers over the last three editions all shared the grace and humility to make themselves redundant from sailing the boat. These skippers instead would provide the confidence to enable their crew members to push themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of.

Is this not a great definition of leadership?

The video highlights more of our philosophy about people, learning and sailing.

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Written by Rob

A graduate in development economics and qualification as a secondary school teacher of Geography preceded a career in the Royal Marines where I won the Commando Medal in Officer Training and went on to lead teams in a variety of challenging operational environments. I went on to be a lead facilitator at the Royal Naval Leadership school coaching senior managers in all aspects of leadership.

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