Ocean-Going Lessons for Ethical Business Leadership

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

“Will it make the boat go faster? –This focused query helped 27-year old skipper Brendan Hall win the the 2009/10 around-the- world clipper race with an entirely amateur crew. [1]

THE EQUIVALENT question for ethical leaders is perhaps: “Will it make us a more responsible business?”

Brendan-HallBasing his leadership approach on a systematic review of past successes and failures by other skippers, Hall developed a comprehensive and well-documented method for generating genuine team spirit.He distilled the lessons into a guide for his own record-breaking effort. This included the test question about boat speed. He used it to assess the many suggestions and ideas from his inspired and enthusiastic crew.

His team spirit lessons are not merely an interesting angle on how to lead. They also provide helpful into how ethical leaders can go about winning the sort of commitment and involvement needed to go beyond the limits of conventional compliance.

The need to uncover new ways to build team spirit around an ethical agenda becomes ever more urgent. Companies everywhere, particularly in the financial sector, continue to commit ever larger amounts of resources to achieving compliance– with often highly questionable results.

Latest big spender is HSBC for instance, whose soaring governance costs now mean 24,300 staff devoted to risk and compliance. To put this in a meaningful perspective, the bank’s compliance army represents one in ten of all employees, up about one sixth from three years ago. [2]

Of the many lessons Hall extracted from his winning round the world performance, perhaps the main one to which he keeps returning is “persistence.” In achieving any team objective you are bound to keep hitting brick walls, says Hall, situations or events that slow you down or entirely threaten your continued progress. In sailing terms that can mean anything from a broken mast to a person overboard. When it occurs it can seem catastrophic and even terminal to one’s hopes of winning the race.

Hall explains the importance of tackling these brick walls with persistence, in believing you can break through to the other side and just keep moving.

For ethical leaders persistence is indeed a highly relevant team spirit lesson. Faced with continual compliance failures, or employees reluctant to speak up about possible ethical malpractices, sheer persistence in pursuing the goal of running a responsible business can make the difference between success and failure.

Hall points out that his success was “not because we had a secret weapon or more skilled sailors than the other nine teams competing; it came down to factors that were entirely human: teamwork, motivation, persistence and courage—things that are at the heart of any great endeavour.”

Early in his list of team spirit “lessons” Hall identifies inspiration as essential to the cause. Genuine inspiration is hard to come by “of the kind that you feel down to your core. You know that something has shifted inside you and the trajectory of your life is going to be different because of it.”

broken-mastFor ethical leaders creating inspiration around the idea of running a responsible business is certainly a challenge—perhaps not up to sailing around the world with an amateur crew—but certainly a big ask. Just how do you inspire your people to go beyond just obeying the rules to pulling their weight on ethical issues the rules don’t cover?

What Brendan reveals is something already well known about inspiration. To inspire others first inspire yourself. He had many doubts about himself.

” Am I good enough?” “Why would anyone follow me? ” “Could I ever be on the same level of leadership as others who had led teams around the world on a 65 ft. ocean going yacht?”

To inspire himself Brendan first faced his fears of possible inadequacy and told himself he was good enough. Next he demanded that he stop doubting himself and set his mind to the task—“work your arse off, you’ll do it.” Most of all he made himself entirely open to honest, often difficult feedback from every member of his crew. This suggests something important and about winning ethical engagement from stakeholders. You must invest a considerable amount of yourself and your ego in reaching for the goal of an ethical, responsible business.

For HSBC’s bosses for example, it will not be enough to have thousands of staff dedicated to compliance, no matter how specialist and dedicated they are. Without ethical leadership that feels inspired to inspire, to work hard at creating a powerful force for change not much will alter in the bank.

For instance Hall personally created a flurry of ideas to overcome the challenges he saw as blocking his way to winning the race. Ethical leaders in business would do well to take a leaf out of this meticulous attention to detail such as Hall devoted to overcoming the challenges.

Amongst the essentials Hall identified for example, was effective conflict management. Lack of this could undermine the running a spirited team. Causes included unclear goals, roles and allocation of roles, lack of fairness, a lack of people’s involvement in decision making, and insensitivity to other’s needs.

Ethical leadership too faces these issues and what Hall makes clear is the need to have clear plans in place to tackle each situation, not leave it to chance or hoping it will be “alright on the night”.

Five other crucial lesson from Brendan Hall’s team spirit success which have relevance to ethical leaders are:

teamwork31) Build a culture of continuous learning. On a boat this means you keep dissecting your successes and failures with the aim of constant improvement. It’s no different for ethical leaders who need to keep reviewing what is working and what is not, and why you are or are not winning people’s ethical commitment.

2) Make good communication the defining characteristic of the team. This sounds a bit like motherhood and apple pie and most ethical leaders would probably go along with this aspiration. However, as Hall shows, it take far more than just noble sentiments. It demands leaders and followers develop an effective and involving knowledge sharing approach.

3) Your mood becomes their mood. Self-awareness is critical for a boat skipper and it’s much the same for an ethical leader. The shadow you cast as a leader is bigger than you realise and “your words and actions become magnified because of your position.”

4) Keep the big picture in mind, never lose sight of the essential goal. Hall puts it in sailing terms: “Think long term victory, not short term glory.” But he could be talking about banks or any other organisation which wants to succeed. So much of present company behaviour seems driven by greed and short-term gains that will never leave a legacy or build a sustainable reputation.

5) Trust your gut instinct to tell you what to do. Often the head over rules the heart, both in sailing and in running a business. What Hall shares is his learning that ignoring your instinctive feelings about what is right and wrong can be a serious error. Ethical leaders who develop their moral compass and follow their instinct for what is ethically sound are more likely to succeed that those who rely on rules and sheer logic.

Although Hall has many other lessons to share with ethical leaders these five were core to his success, plus one general principle that will be familiar to every leader in a business organisation: delegation.

Hall set out to make himself redundant as a leader. He put it more starkly as: the crew must be able to sail the clipper without him to safety. So he worked on the assumption that he might be injured or washed overboard and the crew must be self-sufficient.

This proved literally a life saver, as during the race he had to transfer to another boat in distress, leaving his own crew to carry on without him. They managed perfectly well; at one stage he was steering three boats simultaneously into safety.
Ideally ethical leaders need stakeholders able to “steer the ship without them”, make difficult ethical choices and know when to ask for help.

Hall’s inspiring story is packed with leadership lessons that are worth exploring, from valuing feedback, to setting short-term goals. The alternative is yet more resources on policing the system, having “monitors” to check the checkers and so on.

Ethical leadership is never going to be “plain sailing.” But as Hall shows, sailing isn’t either.

[1] Brendan Hall, Team Spirit, Adlard Coles; Reprint edition (19 Jun 2013)
[2] M.Arnold, HSBC wrestles with soaring costs of managing compliance, FT 5th August 2014


Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leigh
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates ( pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.

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