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Mast of a tall ship

What life at sea can teach you about leadership

It’s the middle of the night. You’re out at sea without land in sight. There’s a storm coming up from the south, the winds are wreaking havoc on the sails and half the crew is seasick – what do you do? It’s the decisions you make now that could help you become an audacious leader.

Dr John McWilliams runs the Audacious Leadership unit at Deakin University, which is based on experiential learning and physical teaching methods that instill fearlessness into willing candidates. How exactly? By placing them on an old Boston trading ship called the Windeward Bound and sending them off for eight days at sea.

Why do leaders need to be audacious?

Being audacious involves doing things that no one else would consider, according to Dr McWilliams. ‘This trait can be charismatic or annoying, but it’s a person with a strong enough sense of self to be able to say, ”this will work” that makes a leader.’

Looking to many military leaders of the past who have shown audacious qualities, Dr McWilliams talks of many battles that have been won by leaders willing to take the necessary risks to succeed. Take, for example, the Battle of Aqaba. Instead of attacking the Turkish from the sea, where the Turkish already had artillery, T.E Lawrence took the long way around, through what was thought to be the impassable Nefud Desert, to surprise the enemy from behind and win.

Finding your sea legs pushes boundaries

Life on a ship will challenge even the most confident people. The sea is unpredictable, tides alter, winds swing, storms rage, body clocks change and there’s the possibility of getting beached. Students must work shifts of four hours, 24 hours a day and rely on each other to stay on course. This environment has the potential to break down physical and mental barriers to reveal previously untapped leadership skills.

In any job there are tasks that people become familiar with. ‘In these environments you don’t get to see the stark reality of people’s leadership. But the ship has a different system, allowing leadership to be on display,’ Dr McWilliams explains. If people don’t pull their weight, the ship can’t operate – leaders need to stand up and show what they’re capable of.

'It’s a person with a strong enough sense of self to be able to say, ”this will work” that makes a leader'

Dr John McWilliams,
Audacious Leadership Unit Chair, Deakin University

Light bulb moments bring real world benefits

The power of the experiential learning that takes place on the ship can be difficult to measure in traditional metrics due to its progressive nature, but the epiphanies of those who have taken up the challenge shed some light. In some cases, the experience changes professional mindsets for good.

Dr McWilliams recalls a crewmate who managed bank branches. While on bow watch at 2 am, he realised that he should be leading the bank branches, not managing them. When he returned to land, he changed his role and started to work closely with each branch on a rotating roster, rather than give orders remotely. Soon his division was the best performing in the network. Another student told Dr McWilliams: ‘After you get off the boat, you feel a little bit taller because of what you have achieved. You feel you have the right to speak. You’re more likely to step up and say, “follow me”.’

Learning to lead comes from experience

Leadership lectures can only get you so far. Until you’re placed in foreign practical situations, it’s hard to know how to overcome adversity. Audacity is not so much something that can be taught, but something that has to be gained through personal growth. Using a Star Wars metaphor, Dr McWilliams concludes, ‘Each Jedi has to build their own light saber. If you build it, you can fix it, if you lose it, you can make another one. It’s yours.’

Want to take your leadership skills to the next level? Join other innovators from around the world in our free two week course on FutureLearn, What is Leadership? or check out our Master of Leadership. online degree.

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Dr John McWilliams
Dr John McWilliams

Senior Lecturer, Deakin Business School
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