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Just A Cornish Sailor

Is True Heroism Coupled with an Attitude Towards People?

Fri Dec 13 16:30:23 2013


I was fortunate, last month, to attend a Masterclass Lecture given by the sailor, Pete Goss. The lecture was once again organised via the wonderful staff at the Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) and my attendance was part of the Lancashire Forum Programme.

The first thing I have to state is that the Lecture Theatre One at the LUMS has some of the most comfortable lecture seating I have ever experienced. It is like an armchair. So I was quite concerned that my attention might wane during the talk and I would doze off. The lecture was at six-thirty in the evening and I had been at the University since nine in other lectures and workshops.

I need not have been so concerned, lack of interest was not going to be an issue.

Exceptional Cornish Man

Pete had asked that his introduction be:

> A Cornish Sailor

However we were told he was:

> An Exceptional Cornish Sailor

Pete Goss: An Exceptional Cornish Sailor

The reason given for introducing him that way is that Pete gained a lot of fame as during the single-handed round the world yachting challenge when he went to the aid of a fellow sailor who was in trouble. They were both in the path of a hurricane at the time. So his exceptional status is not without attribution.

I should initially note that a lot of what is related here has a nautical bias, and there are lots of marine allusions. Please be patient with them, when Pete tells his tale they seem natural and fluid, the repetition of them here are by my hand and therefore do not have his skill in the usage. In fact this is a simple reflection, somewhat distorted by time and my own ability, of his talk, although not derisive it is not an indication of his quality.

Leadership Insights

Pete began by saying he was going to share with us his leadership insights. he would do this while telling us a little of his life story and by telling of three sporting challenges he performed. It is worth noting that he calls these projects, and that each project he has done was like running a seperate business.

He also likes to say he lost:

> the world's biggest catamaran

As part of what was known as Team Philips. This was not just going to be a talk about success but a reflection on loss, and failure to complete. Pete has had to contend with failure as much as success. The first thing that he chose to present to us was:

> Leadership challenges the norm

The accepted ways of doing things do not work when you are a leader. Part of what marks you as a leader is doing the non-normal tasks. Pete likes to ensure that in his teams they are:

> A group of leaders. Each team member should be a leader.

Each team member challenges those norms and makes an exceptional challenge possible. The role of management is in making that leadership efficient. However there is a note of caution:

> Too much leadership is bad

The challenge for the manager seems to be to know when to let people lead and when to inspire them to follow.

There are some people that Pete feels you need to be cautious in managing. Particularly he indicates those that have crawled so far into themselves that they are in a very dark place with no sense of leadership or direction. These people have become insular and objectionable. You can either help them and get them to change or throw them overboard.

> You need a pendulum inside yourself so that you can balance yourself. Sometimes you have to lead sometimes you swing otherwise

The aim of a good manager is to delegate and train until you are not required anymore, you must allow your people to grow, to nurture them to lead. In many ways it seems that the role of a good manager is to make themselves redundant in the process.

> try to do yourself out of a job.


> Don't take risks, embrace risks

When Pete talks about a successful team he recalls that they are often described as lucky. However this may not be an unrelated element to that of hard work.

> It is through hard work that we seem to become more lucky.

We make our own luck by creating or having the courage to grab opportunities. I like how he sees any challenge either good or bad as being an opportunity. There are no problems, there are opportunities. The problems, or issues that we all face become tasks. These tasks are our challenges and so we should treat them as opportunities with which to test or better ourselves.

> There will always be experts who tell you cannot do something, but no one can tell you that you cannot try

People tend to focus too much on mistakes from a blame perspective. This is a negative road to travel and doesn't carry a team forward. You shouldn't cry over mistakes that are made, celebrate the lesson and learn from it. However if someone is being genuinely foolish, that shouldn't be tolerated.

People should be able to share their mistakes so foster a culture of sharing, of owning a mistake and admitting failure so that it can be examined. Don't allow the act of, or encourage by your approach, complaining and political manouvering.

Project Ouvre

There is a series of tasks that are faced when undertaking a sailing project. To face them it is wise to see this as a projects nature, and they are synogeous to businesses. In tackling them we use what I will fancifully describe as a projects ouvre:

> Innovation, technology, challenge and adventure - the four parts of a project challenge

These are to Pete the principal works of a sailing challenge, however to me they seem to tie well to business.

Innovation: You have to be innovative, and you have to innovate well. You must use all the appropriate technology you have.

Technology: Sometimes you can use new technology to help with innovation. However, Shadowcat have the tagline 'sufficiently advanced technology' for good reasons. I think what Pete indicates is that you must invest in the technology whether new or familiar and be prepared to spend time with it.

Challenge: If your business or life is not full of challenges then you wil stagntae, you have to face and overcome to progress.

Adventure: Yachting, and single-hand around the world races, are the embodiment of adventure. But we can all have adventure in our everyday life, it is a perspective thing. Life itself is a journey and a new pathway can open at any moment. It is how we approach that adventure that marks us as a person.

Pete punctuates this with a small tale. He once woke to the headline "Goss will die", because he used an innovative swing keel on the round the world race, not the best of headlines. The papers apparent experts had decreed this foolish and that it would see him die in some horrid manner. Pete went on to set speed records which he held for nine years. Pete had invested in people and their abilities and skills. He had trusted with them and trained well and so overcame the limitations brought about by only working within trusted expectation.

This wasn't a tale of Pete taking risks, it was him seizing opportunities and trusting in expertise and the practicing of skills to bring out experience.

The Team

Pete was quite passionate when he started to talk about teams. It was clear from the start that he not only appreciates a team for the support and talent, but he loves working in one.

> Unless you are absolutely committed you cannot expect others to be committed

Pete has strong feelings about his teams, he invests a lot of effort and there a distinct impression that this inspires the teams he has run to do the same. There is a lesson in that, we should consider that as managers, or members, of teams we have a duty to perform as well as others and to share the load.

Pete likes to think that you start with a strong team and that they are facing a mighty task. This is the team's weight. It is the load they must carry. This weight is made up of a number of factors, experience, objectives, control of a situation, et cetera:

> As a team should be always breaking down the weight they are carrying and lessening the load

So the ideal plan is to lessen that load, to break the weight down into manageable chunks or to reduce it by deletion.

Part of doing this he advocates is an investment in yourself and into bettering yourself:

> Knowledge dispels fear, the more you train and prepare the easier it is to face the unexpected challenges in life. The heart and the soul need nurturing as much as the body

At this point the lecture became a discussion on the Single Handed Around the World Race, and how he faced it. This included lengthy discussion on the challenges and trials he had to overcome. Pete spoke on how he had to focus on:

  • Performance
  • Innovation
  • Systems of regularity
  • Project focus
  • Times.

These are the challenges that a business faces on a daily basis, the running of the event is the challenge that a company will face as it moves through a business period.

The allegorical relationship between facing a difficult challenge and running a successful business with multiple projects are apparent, admittedly we rarely have to face actual turbulent seas, but the metaphor still stands.

Stormy Weather

Pete told us the most famous story connected to him, how he came to rescue a fellow competitor in the round the world race, in the middle of a massive storm.

The story highlighted the decisions he had to make in an extreme situation and how he was able to face them.

> Being in a strong storm that has waves that spin you around and are four stories high all you can do is react to the situation

Pete was heading towards Australia on the Indian Ocean leg of the race when he and many of the other competitors ran into a large storm front. In the position he quotes above, with waves crashing hard on to his deck, and him stowed belowdecks hoping he could hold out. All he could do was react to the situation, no planning could conceivably cover this situation as the events were too fluid and variable.

Stormy Weather

At this point Pete received a May Day from a fellow competitor. The Frenchman, Rafael, was 140 miles away and in a desperate situation. Rafael was sinking and fully in the path of the hurricane.

Pete had to make the difficult decision to stand by principal of sailors and answer the SOS at the risk of his own life or be conservatively rational and deduce that the possibility of failure was too high and then two people would lose their lives. One important fact to think of here is that Pete stressed his own vessel was taking on water. he could barely stand on deck without fear of being washed overboard. The possibility of death was very high without going further into the storm.

Pete was at the main crossroads of his life. His belief is that as a team leader you are the custodian of the team, so that you have to uphold the values of the team even in the most difficult conditions. So in a situation where he could hardly breathe, on deck with a boat almost sinking, he felt a faith in the experience and training, the hard work, of his team. Pete turned into the wind to answer the call. His unshakeable belief in the preparation and management gave him the confidence to overcome the fear and deadly danger.

Pete broke his situation into three parts. He task managed his situation:

  • Survive the current state
  • Get to Rafael
  • Get out of the storm with Rafael

The storm was so violent that the engine of Pete's boat was ripped from its mounts on the first night that he turned into the storm. He had to tie himself to the lower deck as her couldn't return to the deck. The rudder was locked in place.

But despite being alone on the boat Pete sees this not as an individual effort but a team effort. The team who made the boat, the team that inspired him, the team that broke his challenge into milestones. You don't stand alone.

Pete speaks as a man not just standing on the shoulders of his people but lifted by them and placed up high.

> Courage, determination, persistence. You have to drive through the darkest hour and be a calm head in a storm with clear goals.

Rafael knew he was going to die. He stood on a sinking boat, strapped to it so that he would not be blown off, watching as his life raft was torn apart by the storm that was raging all around him. Rafael had made peace with himself, he knew that his life was over and had accepted that.

Then the Australian Air Force battled through the storm and found him. They dropped him a life raft as his ship was finally sinking. True to the notion of all that is French Rafael saved a bottle of champagne and got to the raft.

The combination of determination, skill, and luck born from hard work, got Pete to Rafael. The Australian Air Force risked their lives to stay above them circling so Pete would find him. Pete saved Rafael just as the boat sank. However, the ordeal didn't end there. The exposure had got to Rafael and he was desperately ill. Pete had nurse Rafael for the next ten days before he could drop him off in Tasmania. At the same time Pete had badly injured himself in his arm and it became infected. Pete had to perform surgery on himself, using a scalpel and a mirror, while being directed over the radio by a doctor.

From this Pete draws his three kernels of truth:

> You can do anything if you believe it. > If a group commit mind body and soul you can get anywhere. > When you are on your own against strong odds the only failure comes from complacency.

Team Philips

On team Philips they decided to build the best boat and experience that they could. Responsibility is a hard thing to bestow, and a difficult challenge, but if someone lives up to it then they can really grow. They wanted to use this challenge to do that.

Pete believes that the ethos is important, you must stick to it, hold onto your core values so they are not for sale. Pete turned down two million pounds in sponsorship from a tobacco company on the Team Philips project as he doesn't support the ethos of advertising that product.

Team Philips at Sea

As always we returned to the team:

>If you invest in a team a greater wealth of reward will come back to you

Once again Pete repeats that he doesn't own the project, his role is to be custodian of the project, he is another part as is everyone else. By empowering his team he was able to achieve goals for less outlay of resources, he gave them the ability to make and deliver on decisions and expectations.

The biggest lesson learned from the Team Philips project was to have a bad news meeting. A black hat (not a computing black hat), where you identify all the failures and either bin them, change them or improve them. From that you can then look at delivering:

  • Timeline
  • Budget
  • Responsibility

You also must assess the teams that are divisioned and their strengths. If everyone is not playing for the same team then that is an issue, so move people into different teams to get people to integrate with each other. Recognition is the most important thing. You must learn to recognise peoples strengths, weaknesses and any failures.

> It is easy to be on top, and good. But when failure, especially catastrophic, happens how you deal with it is the true telling of any team.

When Team Philips had their catastrophic moment, they didn't blame each other, they quietly set to the task of finding out what went wrong and work on it. That is how they approached every challenge. They were one unit, again the image of a strong family comes to mind, what Tönnies would have described as the Gemeinschaft of social networks.

Team Philips hit an eventual disaster that ended the project, their challenge and almost cost them their lives. During sea trials before the competition for the Round the World race they hit a freak storm. They encountered what sailors call a water bomb, an event similar to that shown in A Perfect Storm.

They were doing thirty two knots speed in a storm, while slowing themselves with thirty tons of drag and sea anchor, with no sails raised and encountering three hundred foot waves between peak and trough.

This was the point when Pete knew he had to abandon the project. Pete was responsible for everything and at the last moment he knew that the lives of his crew outweighed any other cost. They did a mayday and abandoned the vessel and were rescued by an oil tanker. They had a perilous time getting off the boat and had to watch their work and dreams sink below them.

Even though they failed, they had pride and achievement that the experiment worked. If you work in the hard and fast lane you have to expect a failure but it should be as always learned from.

> You need to bring a hundred year challenge into a twenty five year achievement


Pete ended his talk with a list of things he learned, words that should open up whole dialogues for anyone managing people and projects. To begin think about what is needed for the project:

  • Clear vision
  • Path
  • Hook
  • Team character
  • Trust
  • Care
  • Values
  • Commitment
  • Evangelise
  • Communication

Then think about what you need to do for your team as their custodian:

  • Listen to your instinct
  • Talk to people
  • Listen, listen, listen
  • Never shout
  • Be honest with info
  • Consistent, firm but fair
  • Never ask others to do what you wouldn't
  • Receptive to change
  • Recognise achievement
  • Leadership is a privilege that is bestowed, not a job title

And finally it comes to yourself, what you need for you:

  • Have an outlet for stress
  • Make time for clear thought
  • Don't forget family
  • Success and failure are part of progress

He left us with two simple words:

> fair winds


Once again I went to a lecture where I thought I might be entertained by listening to a different life. Once again I was taken aback by such passion, insight and genuine character. Pete Goss is an inspiring man, if he is one tenth of the man in life that he appeared in the lecture then it would be an honour to be a member of his teams.

If you ever get the chance to hear him talk I advise you take it. You will be amazed as this is just a precis into the tale. Thanks once again to Boost Lancashire and the Lancaster Univeristy management School (LUMS) for making the event and my participation possible.

He really was an exceptional Cornish Sailor.