Brendan Hall's Visit to Speakers Corner HQ: Building a High-Performing Team from Scratch

26 April 2018

The Clipper Race is one of the biggest challenges of the natural world and an endurance test like no other. It’s the only race in the world where each team has an identical yacht and a crew, picked at random with no previous sailing experience necessary. Led by one skipper, participants can choose to complete the entire 40,000 nautical mile race around the world or simply select different legs to compete in.

However, there is one caveat. You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. Crews can’t leave or abandon ship when the going gets tough. And it will get tough, as the route travels through the North Pacific complete with gale force winds, and even hurricanes.

We were treated to a visit and Q&A from Brendan Hall, a professional ocean yacht racing captain who in 2009-10 skippered the Spirit of Australia team in the Clipper Round the World Race.

Brendan’s story is truly remarkable and offers a deep insight into the challenges of leading a team of amateur sailors from all walks of life into a high-performing team under the most extreme of pressurised situations.

Creating a Leadership Model from Scratch

The initial leadership challenge for Brendan was very simple. How do you lead, mentor and motivate a team of individuals who all have very different reasons for entering the race? Some wanted to win at all costs, others wanted to test their skills, or have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The age of the crew ranged from young adults to retired pensioners.

Furthermore, with the danger of being at sea very real, how could Brendan train and upskill the crew to keep the yacht afloat and the entire crew safe if he was incapacitated for any reason?

Leaders often want to stay in control and become the puppet master, pulling the strings and ensuring performance is delivered to the required standard. There is the fear factor that, should a team be left to their own devices, they won’t perform or perhaps go rogue, leaving the management hierarchy in a troublesome situation.

Brendan talked us through some strategies he used to empower the crew, to take ownership and importantly upskill, so if the worst case happened, the crew would be safe.

This decision became even more important when the race entered the North Pacific.

Leading in Adversity

The North Pacific is regarded as one of the harshest oceans on the planet to sail through.

Spirit of Australia was well prepared for the hurricane which was about to blow over the flotilla of yachts making their way to San Francisco.

During the storm, the skipper of the Hull and Humber yacht sustained a serious leg injury, rendering the crew with an incapacitated skipper. Spirit of Australia were asked by the race organisers to divert to the yacht and provide assistance.

While making the journey, Brendan was asked by the race organisers would he be prepared to leave his crew onboard the Spirit of Australia and skipper the Hull and Humber yacht safely to San Francisco.

Brendan’s story continues throughout the rest of the journey to San Francisco, implementing leadership strategies to upskill the Hull and Humber crew, and manage their emotional state having witnessed a traumatic incident. Further challenges weren’t far away, the North Pacific rendering another yacht in danger and requesting emergency assistance.

Evolving the Leadership Model for a High-Performing Team

Brendan talked about the immense pride he had in his Spirit of Australia crew. Their ability to manage the yacht in Brendan’s absence is a heart-warming tale – but Brendan discusses his reaction to feeling dis-empowered, and would he be able to lead the crew for the rest of the race knowing they could perform without him.

This was one story which wouldn’t be out of place in the cinema. It was striking how the entire crew bought into Brendan’s strategy and took responsibility to integrate new crew members, share their mistakes and turn negative thoughts into a growth mindset.

We are privileged at Speakers Corner to hear some fascinating and awe-inspiring stories. Brendan's tale of how the Spirit of Australia performed during the rest of the race is one which truly leaves you gripped to the end.

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