Leadership – leading from down under

It is Leadership Week in New Zealand. http://sirpeterblaketrust.org/leadershipweek

How apt. A week when we have welcomed back Emirates Team New Zealand with the oldest sporting trophy – the Auld Mug (a.k.a. The America’s Cup). It is time to consider what leadership is and to draw inspiration from that great New Zealander: Sir Peter Blake.

When asked (back in 1995 when we first won that elusive trophy) what on earth made him think New Zealand could compete for (and actually win) The America’s Cup, Blakie said: “When people say something is impossible, that is when I want to do it.”

There is more to it, of course. Not only have our teams got further on fewer resources than any other winning syndicate, but they have insisted on playing nicely, “sharing our toys” (actual quote from the ‘95 team’s playbook) and building a challenge that “New Zealand can be proud of – to  succeed in all aspects.”

What, then, is leadership? I like to think of it as two aspects – neither to do with a title, function or result:

  • Being the best (as in ‘top of the leader board’ in your field) in all aspects
  • Doing what a situation needs (i.e. what is appropriate in terms of team purpose, team identity, sponsor/fan expectations and future value/sustainability.)

It is simply not our way, nor is it leadership, to win at all costs. That is ‘management’: fixating on results at the expense of all else (even your soul.) That is not inspiring and it simply doesn’t get the best from people or situations.

From thousands of years ago, these words are as relevant today:
”Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. The best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves.” Lao Tzu

The currency of this is reinforced by a CIO article from 1 June: “Innovation and change: When leaders are the problem” by Owen McCall.

“Lack of a ‘21st century leadership’ is hampering innovation across industries today,” he says. Explaining resistance by staff to innovation, he names two erroneous assumptions:

  • Change needs to be imposed on teams from management
  • The best way to create change is through fear

Domination, subjugation, violation – not leadership. Leadership is a state of mind – a way you choose to live. It is bigger than an individual and requires ‘the collective’ to realise it. Back in the 90s, Zinzan Brook said of the Auckland Rugby Team: “I want 15 captains on the field” – everyone ready and able to lead as situationally required.

Leadership is all these things:

  1. Lead thinking to come up with a breakthrough design – having a fraction of the budget of the large syndicates; out-thinking instead of out-spending the rest
  2. Knowing when to go public and when to keep cards close to chest – no one, not even the Team New Zealand cyclists’ families, knew the team had replaced traditional arm grinding with leg grinding
  3. Keeping calm when everything including the kitchen sink is thrown at you – the sense of cool-headedness in the face of ‘Pitbull’ Spithill’s barbs
  4. Aspiring to the very best of what is possible – and even what is not
  5. Seeing setbacks as just part of the extra mile landscape – coming back from a capsize a mere few weeks before the final win
  6. Never giving up – even after the capsize, one of the cyclists was still cycling while suspended sideways in the air!
  7. Paying attention to what seems insignificant – Sir Peter Blake said no matter what your role in the team (even if you are sweeping the floor) it is all part of winning the Cup
  8. Doggedly committed to improvement – chasing 1 second of speed each time they sailed (for years)
  9. Team first – a team-driven campaign; Sir Peter Blake insisted the team make decisions that directly affected them

This is useful as a leadership audit in your organisation:

  1. Does the team lead thinking in its field?
  2. Do you know/does the team know what to communicate, when and how (all things considered) with the wider organisation/host system?
  3. Does the team keep a cool head when others lose theirs?
  4. Are people better when they are together – able to achieve beyond their individual potential – due to their collective commitment, creativity, trust and drive?
  5. Is the team superbly resourceful (able to get things done more effectively and efficiently than others) no matter what obstacles they face?
  6. Is the team motivated by pressure and resistance, to excel?
  7. Does the team know what to pay attention to and what to block out?
  8. Is everyone constantly seeking improvements that will move the team forward?
  9. Does the team have autonomy – is performance really team-driven?

Some organisations (and departments) are manager-driven (he/she pushes things along); others are campaign-driven (a particular deliverable pushes things – and people – along); others are process-driven (precedent pushes things along). Only a few are truly team-driven.

For those of us who followed our America’s Cup team in 2013 – and witnessed them fall from an 8-1 lead to an 8-9 loss – and still kept the faith in the leadership of this team, it has been a particularly awe-inspiring couple of weeks.

When people strive against huge odds for so long, and nothing goes their way; when they struggle for funding and are an inch away from switching off the lights for the last time; when they are pulled day after day back out on the water by a sense of getting the job done ……..how can you not feel a huge sense of admiration and loyalty?

That is leadership. When you witness it, you want to empty the tank, go to the ends of the earth, leave nothing out on the field. You feel taller, capable of more and obstacles seem to shrink in your path.

Once you develop leadership as a state of being in your organisation, anything is possible.


About Cherri Holland

Fascinated with business, brains and how to use the brains on the payroll to make business buzz.
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