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The Chemistry of Leadership

The Swiss syndicate Alinghi defeated the California-based team Oracle, not necessarily because they had a better boat, but because of the chemistry among the crew.
Whether or not you’re interested in sailboat racing, there are things to learn from the America’s Cup. A few months ago I offered some seamanship lessons from the front of the boats.  Here are some observations about leadership and organization on board the two Louis Vuitton Cup (challenger) finalists, Alinghi and Oracle.

They were the odd couple of Auckland.   From the cool gray uniforms to the clockwork organization, everything about the Swiss boat said, “Our act is together.”  So secure was Russell Coutts in the tightly-knit net of his familiar crew that to all appearances he was taking relaxed afternoon sails, not racing.  Oracle sent a more macho message, with the black uniforms and hull, and her hyper-tense skipper, Chris Dickson. The San Francisco-based team wanted us to know one thing: “Don’t mess with us or we’ll explode!”   

In the end, that’s exactly what Oracle did, despite an early speed advantage in the prevailing light air and flat sea.   True, some of Alinghi got better.  Not previously distinguished in these conditions, the Swiss boat was faster every day.  Her jibs became flatter, her spinnakers more full.  After it became clear that Oracle was jibing faster, Coutts in mid-series brought aboard a new team of beefy winch-grinders and altered their equipment (probably by changing gear ratios) to allow quicker trimming.  By the end of the Finals, Alinghi was at least as fast as Oracle.  If the America’s Cup match (which begins on February 14, US time) sees light air and Alinghi ends up beating Team New Zealand, some of the credit must go to Oracle for inadvertently tutoring the Swiss in how to sail in breezes less than 13 knots.

A tight-knit crew, the direct result of good leadership, accomplishes its objectives as Alinghi has just shown Oracle.
But observing from the Outdoor Life Network studio (OLN) in Auckland, I thought that Oracle’s defeat was in part self-inflicted. It’s a truism that at this level, races are more often lost by careless mistakes rather than won by brilliance, and mistakes were made by the black boat in January on the Hauraki Gulf.  Oracle’s afterguard was lured time and again into sailing in ways that compounded her weaknesses instead of exploiting her strengths.  Take, for example, the tendency—or was it an impulse?—to be unduly ferocious in tight quarters.  Exuding what tack-by-tack TV commentator Ed Baird called “an excess of adrenalin and testosterone,” they fouled the Swiss boat in two of the six races, in each case having to take penalty turns that set them back half a minute and losing both races.  

Another example of Oracle’s self-defeating qualities was her downwind tactics.   With her smaller, low-resistance keel, she was fast on a straight run. Yet Dickson or the usual helmsman, Peter Holmberg, allowed themselves to be lured into luffing matches in which they had to sail on a tight reach, where that small keel was slower than Alinghi’s larger fin and bulb.

The obvious question is why Oracle’s crew allowed themselves to be roped into making foolish fouls and engaging in unproductive luffing matches. They could have gone off and sailed (and probably won) their own race.  The fault probably lay in dual discomforts—first with their boat, then with their organization. Both were works in progress. Despite Oracle’s excellent record, there was a day in the Semifinals when, on almost no notice, Dickson exiled Holmberg to a chase boat. He later said he wanted to get his own sense of the boat.  Evidently, the tricky Oracle was not cooperating. There were reports that she was unusually hard to steer even for the Cup Class, where control is erratic at best. Early in a race in the Finals the onboard microphones caught Holmberg exclaiming, “The boat feels good today.” As Bruce Kirby quickly pointed out to me in an e-mail, that could only mean that there were many times when Oracle felt pretty bad.  

When the leader loses the confidence of the crew, he finds himself surrounded by an unmotivated bunch of individuals instead of a team working toward a common goal.
The unease of the afterguard was apparent from the onboard cameras and microphones.  At times they showed the mix of impulsiveness, impatience, and indecision that causes many cruising sailors to make bad decisions in tense situations such as in storms, when making landfalls, and during approaches to fuel docks.  Many cruising sailors would recognize themselves in some footage showed on OLN.  Sailing down one run alongside Alinghi, Dickson (as tactician) nagged helmsman Holmberg to split with Alinghi and sail his own race.  What was intriguing was the form of Dickson’s advice. He was pleading, not commanding. “Why don’t we jibe away?” he asked over and over.  Holmberg replied with averted eyes and silence until, clearly annoyed, he finally told Dickson to make the decision himself.    

We all have experience with the quandary of the leader who has lost both confidence and his team’s trust. Yet such a thing seems odd in the case of that apparent archetype of decisiveness, Chris Dickson.  Back in October, after Oracle lost three straight races, owner Larry Ellison fired Holmberg as skipper and put Dickson in charge. The fiery Dickson immediately stirred things up, instituting a flexible leadership system under which he and Holmberg shared steering duties in patterns that changed almost daily.  It worked.  Oracle rolled up an 11-race winning streak, even taking a close race from Alinghi, to end up second behind the Swiss.  After losing to Coutts in the Semifinals, Oracle destroyed OneWorld (whose own skipper and crew distrusted each other) in the Semifinal Repechage with brilliant tactics and superb crew work.

A good skipper will work hard to establish a relationship of respect and consistency with the crew, thereby creating the sense of purpose and structure necessary to go to sea.
Then came the Finals against Coutts & Co., where the explosive crew and the rock-steady came up against each other again.  Brad Butterworth, Alinghi’s tactician, nailed down the difference in a long interview with Magnus Wheatley on the Web site of the English magazine Yachts & Yachting.  He said of Oracle: “They just made mistakes and it was tough for them because they kept changing their decision processes at the back of the boat. Going into the Finals, that’s not the greatest time to be doing that.”  Butterworth, Coutts, and three other key sailors in Alinghi have been racing together regularly for the last 10 years, always ion the same positions.  Anybody who overheard the Butterworth-Coutts dialogue on Alinghi knows that their relationship is one of calm, consistency, and respect.  Pleading is not their mode of discourse. I even heard Butterworth respectfully address his old mate as “Cap.”

Dickson’s system isn’t all bad; after all, under his leadership Oracle qualified for (and could have won) the Finals weeks after more tightly organized crews were eliminated. Yet at the top level of any activity—and here I include getting a cruising boat through a hard chance as well as winning the Louis Vuitton Cup—steadiness of purpose, deportment, and structure is required. Peter Holmberg has said as much:  “It’s no mystery that an afterguard is a team; it’s a unit that builds over time.  There’s chemistry there.You don’t just put a band together overnight and start making good music. Abrupt changes are not good for anything.” 

John Rousmaniere is offline  
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