Competing in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race–one of the most dangerous offshore ocean races in history–skipper Ed Psaltis and his crew did more than survive the deadly storm. The AFR Midnight Rambler went on to become the overall winner of the race–the smallest boat in 10 years to win the prestigious Tattersall’s Cup.
How did they do it? What enabled the Midnight Rambler team to prevail against all odds? And what can your team learn from their experience?
One of the keys to the Rambler’s success was their unshakable optimism.
Over the course of a long race, sailors will inevitably encounter setbacks. In an instant, a boat can go from leading the fleet to lagging behind. A major reversal can easily discourage the crew and, left unchecked, can deplete the crew’s energy. Worse yet, this weakened performance can quickly turn into a downward spiral. Ed Psaltis notes:
The issue of optimism is a critical aspect of the Hobart race. As in any sporting endeavor, people get tired–both physically and mentally. If you haven’t got that spark–something to aim for, some good news to keep in the back of your mind–the team can get demoralized very quickly. When that happens we’re not performing at our best. You have to stay embedded in reality, but I try to keep a positive outlook, because that keeps the crew going when they’re cold and hungry and tired. We won’t win every race, but if we’ve got a chance of beating our arch rival, we’ll keep at it.
A team that aspires to triumph at The Edge needs to first decide what it means to win. If the goal is winning a race and taking home the trophy–literally or metaphorically–then the team can align around that goal. Alternatively, a team might choose to try to be first in their division–roughly equivalent to competing with teams and organizations of their own size. And if the goal is purely to enjoy the mateship of the journey, then the challenge is defined differently. The only requirement is that the crew complete the race safely and without injury.
A boat named Rosebud has won a number of major ocean races including the Sydney to Hobart, the Newport to Bermuda, and the Transpacific from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Malcolm Park, a watch captain who played a key role in the boat’s design, spoke about the secret of Rosebud‘s success:
For me, the most important thing in building a winning team is that everyone has the same vision of what the team goals are. It’s not enough to say I want to win. We all want to win. That doesn’t cut it. The question is, what do you want to win? Do you want to win ocean races? Do you want to win buoy races? Do you want to travel internationally? Do you want to stay locally? In our case, there is more than the result we are looking to achieve in specific ocean races like the Hobart Race. It wasn’t enough simply to build a boat that would be successful. We wanted to build a class of boats that others would have an interest in.
To find and focus on a winning scenario, the first step is to define winning. Only then will a team have a clear shared understanding of their race. With that awareness, the team can plan a strategy for taking home their trophy.
On the Midnight Rambler, the winning scenario wasn’t always the most likely series of events. It wasn’t about oddsmakers handicapping a horse race or about pundits predicting election results. It wasn’t about using Bayesian statistics in a decision tree to find an option with the highest expected value. It was about giving the crew a reason to fight: a reason to believe that there was a way they could win the race on their own terms and–because of that possibility–to do everything they could to make the boat sail as quickly as possible.
This metaphor resonates with a number of teams, and the idea that teams need to find a pathway to victory makes sense. If a team can see a way through the maze, then they are willing to invest time and energy in the race.
One of the most interesting patterns to emerge from our research concerns the nature of conversation among teams that survive life-threatening situations. We’ve seen a similar pattern in many accounts–in teams ranging from Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition to shipwreck survivors adrift in lifeboats, and to the Ramblers as well.
In the 1998 storm, the encouraging and optimistic banter of the Ramblers seemed to be transparently concocted. When crewmember Arthur Psaltis said, “The clouds up there are clearing,” or “I think we’re getting through it,” his brother Ed was skeptical. Yet at the same time, he realized that Arthur’s reassurance made things better. It felt good to hear him say that they were going to be okay. It helped.
The power of a team to surmount adversity is extraordinary. With encouragement from others, and a sense of optimism, we can overcome overwhelming odds.
—Dennis N.T. Perkins is the author of Into the Storm and Leading at The Edge. He is CEO of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping leaders and teams thrive under conditions of adversity, uncertainty, and change. Follow him on Twitter at @DNTP.