Over the years, I have advised and advised leaders of all kinds, informed by my own adventures in yachts, adventure sports and business. Not surprisingly, calls and messages have increased in recent weeks.
Now there are two different things: First, this Covid 19 challenge is a monster with deep and lasting effects and the only certainty is uncertainty. Secondly, I am running a brilliant business, Parajet, the world’s leading manufacturer of paramotors (backpack airplanes), so I also need to remember a few things!
Browse with what you have in front of you
In Covid’s current situation, there is great uncertainty and we can all find ourselves trying to model each scenario. The danger is that we forget to optimize our situation here and now, and in the process we lose morale and energy. I’ve seen it a lot in yacht racing, generally where there are complex weather forecasts and often disagreeing, making the next tactic difficult to understand. This erodes morale and creates worry and concern. What I learned is that while you cannot control that uncertainty, you can Control how you are currently navigating and your progress towards your destination. We often said to each other that ‘we navigate with what is in front of you’, that is, to optimize your situation here and now so that, whatever has happened, you are always in the best shape possible. It’s true right now with Covid. None of us knows how long the current situation will last or how it will unfold, but we can take care of our people, preserve our cash, and take it one day at a time.
Make decisions, but be brave enough to change your mind.
Having said that we should navigate with what we have in front of us, indecision is paralyzing. On a racing yacht, he often has 50/50 calls, and the danger is that if he delays a decision, half the crew would be mentally preparing for an option and the other half. Their focus would slow down and they would stop pushing in a common direction / with a common purpose. This wastes effort and creates friction. I learned that in these situations, it is vital that leaders make a clear and unambiguous decision and that everyone respond accordingly. It is much more important that everyone is executing a plan, rather than wavering between two. Of course, if it is a 50/50 call, you may not be right. This is where a leader needs to change his mind. As John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” Sometimes it is appropriate to communicate plan B in advance, qualify plan A but have plan B prepared and ready to go. Action focused on Plan A, then switching to Plan B is always better than hesitation and inaction. We have seen the government do this with their Covid response.
The Importance of Leadership Capital
No one is right all the time. If he’s right most of the time, he’s actually doing quite well. It’s the same with leadership, most of us are usually wrong. This is where the idea of leadership capital comes into play. I have recently experienced this, having to reduce people’s hours or send them without permission. “Easy” is the wrong word, but this seemed simple because we had always been quite transparent with each other. But this is more likely to happen if you have always shown transparency so that you feel able to do the same. It starts with you.
Guide yourself first
You cannot guide anyone if you are not in good condition yourself. Physically, of course, but here I am talking about the emotional and mental state. You will not do a good job at any level if you are not in the right frame of mind. Frustration, anger, fear, or despair are not helpful if they invade your behavior or decision making. Over the years, I realized that I speak to myself every day, usually while driving to work. I analyze how I feel about what I have to do that day. If I’m concerned I explore why that is and find out how to change it. This self-training and reflection creates a certain objective distance and means that I come to the office with a positive attitude and a clear plan instead of a subliminal feeling of fear. Taking the time to reflect and consider the options is something we can forget to do when the chips are down and the environment is not familiar or hostile. I would go so far as to say that it is essential, no matter how pressured you are. You can learn to choose your mental attitude. The alternative is a stress response and emotional hijacking where clear thinking disappears. Doing what is necessary for you to think rationally is key. For me, self-training is key, but rhythmic breathing for two minutes or going for a walk for ten minutes also helps.
The power of realistic optimism.
In the Global Challenge races, the first section was simple: basically the Atlantic runs in generally good weather towards Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Then, everything changes, as he “turns right” around that notorious landmark and feels the full force of the Southern Ocean for the next few weeks as he struggles to reach New Zealand.
At Toshiba Wave Warrior, as we got closer to Cape Horn, the mood changed tangibly. Heads dropped and confidence sank under the weight of the Southern Ocean’s fearsome reputation. The team was uncertain, nervous, understandably concerned, and needed encouragement. I had experienced it before, so I knew what awaited us. But I also knew we could get through it. Clearly, no one was interested in being pessimistic right now, but more importantly, they can’t be overly optimistic, either. Even if they believed you (and they wouldn’t!) If you had said it would be a walk in the park, you would soon lose all credibility and trust once the Southern Ocean was as bad as its reputation. I tried to offer “realistic optimism” in which we would recognize the challenges we face, but would highlight my faith and optimism that we will overcome them, based on my previous experience and the training we had done together. This approach was essential when it became clear that the coronavirus was going to wreak havoc. He couldn’t pretend that everything would be fine when he clearly wasn’t. But he was open about challenges, and that the future was uncertain. But we had a plan that he shared and everyone knew where they were standing and how they could contribute. We helped them focus on what we could control instead of the many uncertainties.
Leadership on the battlefield
If they trust you to keep them alive longer, they will follow you. Parajet’s team welcomed the realistic optimism approach and set the tone for what followed during the blockade. I am often asked what it was like to lead a team in horrendous conditions in the Southern Ocean. Day after day of dangerous and uncomfortable sailing, with a real risk of personal injury, equipment failure and weeks of sailing thousands of miles before reaching a safe harbor. In fact, when the chips are low, leading was easier than in less tumultuous times. In relation to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, everyone in the Southern Ocean was too concerned with personal safety and refuge to care about personal animosities and differences of opinion. Hot food and drinks (even with additional seawater) became the epitome of luxury. To continue the battle analogy, the battle focuses on priorities, helping to channel purpose and driving. See how Covid has channeled the NHS approach in many ways: building Nightingale hospitals at breakneck speed, computerization, new distribution channels, and technological and pharmaceutical innovation.
In command, but not in control
An important lesson I learned the hard way as a skipper is that you have to sleep: you can’t be around 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so you certainly can’t (nor should you try to) control every detail. You must fully delegate responsibility and authority to your teams and trust them to continue the task. Of course, you have the right to veto and revoke a decision, but I’ve learned to use that option sparingly. As a young captain, a wiser and older mentor suggested that he intended to be in command, but not in control. The difference is subtle, but very important! Set the directions and make the big decisions, but don’t even try to micromanage.
Obviously, the team and its deputies have to be adequately trained and feel supported, otherwise they will simply feel abandoned. And the objectives and final results must be crystal clear. But it is a great learning and development opportunity for everyone, including the leader.
Medium and long-term strategy remains essential along with daily survival
I’ve talked a lot here about leading through the very immediate aftermath of a crisis / change, as rightly so, leaders need to focus on what needs to be done right now: caring for their people – their health, safety and well-being ), customers and the basics of business, cash flow, etc.
But leaders also shape strategy, and when something as shocking as Covid comes along, your pre-Covid strategy is sure to be unsuitable for its purpose.
Once the initial situation is managed, we must think about the necessary changes to adapt to the new normality, even if there is more uncertainty than usual.
Like all good strategies, we need to anchor it in what we know, and then it will have to be a numbers game: determining which themes and priorities give you the best chance of success and mitigate poor results. Now more than ever we need to devise, model and evaluate multiple strategies, backed by good reports and analysis of the chosen direction. Regular communications to reinforce and streamline more unavoidable changes in direction will likely get you back to where we started this piece by navigating with what’s in front of you. Or, as we would say in Parajet and the world of aviation, “don’t forget to fly the plane.”
We all need a purpose
Finally, we all go the extra mile if we identify with the core purpose of our organization. As leaders, we should be clear on what that purpose is, buy it personally, and help the team establish those links. I am fortunate that our primary purpose at Parajet is one that I and my entire team agree on. Allow people to have flying adventures using the most accessible form of personal powered flight, with a backpack airplane that can fit in the back of a car.
I know we are all waiting for the moment the blockade ends, Covid is more than a known quantity and we can all go back to heaven and claim some freedom, both physically and commercially.