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Ocean sailor Feature

Leadership

By Mawgan Grace

Everything that has been achieved by man has been through effective leadership. From great historical battles to putting a man on the moon, sound leadership is a fundamental requirement for achieving goals. 

So, what is leadership? In its simplest form leadership is about getting a team of people to work together effectively to achieve common goals. An effective leader must demonstrate skills such as being a good motivator, have humility, a good communicator, be a positive role model, a good manager, have good knowledge, be confident, fair and empathetic. An ability to walk on water, or at least egg shells, will help too.

The leader for the purposes of this article is the nominated yacht Skipper and could very likely be you. There can only be one overall Captain/Skipper. The skills mentioned above are just as important on a private yacht as a commercial Skipper on the ocean or in the sky. We all operate in a dynamic, unforgiving and sometimes dangerous environment where we must manage threats, our crew and emergencies to achieve safe outcomes. Strong leadership is not as critical when things are benign, but when things go wrong, decisions and their outcomes become more critical. 

The aviation and medical industry have been leaders in human resource development, investigating and learning from many tragic and often avoidable accidents. These tools are directly translatable into the maritime environment or within any industry for that matter. 

One such term you may have heard,  developed from our cousins in aviation, is CRM, Crew Resource Management. It provides ‘the most proven methods of achieving effective leadership and communication, aimed at the promotion of safe and efficient operations through clear and unambiguous communication and task sharing through effective team management.

How many times have you been on a yacht when the Skipper was shouting, cursing and belittling the crew? It’s well known that a Skipper that shouts is only advertising his own inadequacies. Appropriate behaviour is therefore a fundamental part of CRM. It is not simply a matter of interacting well with the other crew but taking the responsibility for applying the highest standards of technical and people management disciplines to enhance safety. It is important that the Skipper promotes an atmosphere of good communication where crew can feel they can identify and relay any situation that appears unsafe or out of the ordinary. Experience has proven that the most effective way to maintain the safety of the crew and vessel is to resolve these situations by combining the skills and experience of all crew members in the decision-making process to determine the safest course of action. 

How do we promote safety in practical terms?

We do it through Threat and Error Management (TEM). This skill is something you do in everyday life without even thinking about it. It’s simply being able to look forward and anticipate potential threats and then coming up with ways to mitigate them. For example, you see a hot saucepan on the cooker and anticipate that you could get burned, therefore you will use a towel or oven gloves to move it. You see dark clouds ahead and anticipate a thunderstorm or squall so prepare the boat and crew for reefing early and don wet weather clothing. 

It seems like common sense but as we all know common sense is not that common. Therefore, good threat management requires good anticipation of threats using all resources that are available, such as weather forecasts and the technical state of the vessel and the ability of the crew, to mention a few. Once identified an effective strategy needs to be developed and communicated to all crew members. 

So how do we deal with an emergency effectively? Firstly, it’s important to know a little about yourself!

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
– Mark Twain

Whilst your yacht may have many computers and millions of dollars of development in IT, it has one major flaw, in common with every other ship in the ocean… the organic human organism that controls it all, is the chimpanzee’s closest living relative! With our lineage placed between 4-8 million years ago, human DNA and your boat’s DNA, probably developed in the past 50 years, are worlds apart. The boat systems work on binary and logic, set rules and programs. Humans use physical sensory stimuli feeding into an attentional mechanism that feeds our perception. Perception involves the conversion of sensory information into meaningful structures and creating a real-time model of the outside world. Our own central decision-maker uses our perception heavily influenced by our experiences, expectations and memories to form actions. This process is called behaviour and sets us apart from machines. It is the variation in behaviour that can lead to either very good or very bad outcomes. 

Importantly, humans are also very bad risk managers. Assessing and reacting to risk is important for any animal to survive and we have an ancient part of the brain used to complete this job called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for processing base emotions that come from sensory inputs, like anger, avoidance, defensiveness and fear. It’s an old part of the brain and seems to have originated in early fish. When we see, hear or feel something that resembles a potential danger the amygdala reacts immediately by pumping adrenaline and other hormones into your bloodstream triggering your fight or flight response. Your heart rate and beat force will increase, you will get sweaty palms and increased muscle tension. However, through time there became an evolutionary advantage to remaining in the dangerous situation; hold off on the reflexive reaction while you work out a more sophisticated analysis of the situation and formulate options. Humans have a very different pathway to cope with analysing risk than other animals, we use the neocortex. It’s thought other animals don’t use this for analysing risk and response. Evolutionary speaking it’s a new part of the brain and only appears in mammals. It’s intelligent and analytic and can reason making trade-offs – however, it’s also much slower. The fundamental problem is we have two systems for handling risk, one primitive and one advanced operating in parallel. They say that the application that allows us to avoid a ball thrown at our head is ancient and reliable but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unforeseen future is still in beta testing. It’s hard for the neocortex to contradict the amygdala, this can cause indecision and dither.

Our own IOS is therefore still version 1.0 and nothing has changed in the past 4-8 million years. Every time we sail we update our iPads and chart-plotter and noting the status, for example, of the B&G software, but for ourselves, cognitively there has been no more development, upgrades, revisions or versions. We are adapting an operating system designed to hunt, gather, procreate and survive to operate advanced machines in a challenging physiological environment.

We must remain mindful of our IOS and our own limitations. We are the weakest link and the most incomprehensible aspect of the whole operation. Our cognitive behaviour success rate can vary hugely and is based on skills such as practised motor skills, rule-based behaviour from things learned (such as procedures or routines) and knowledge-based behaviours i.e. decision making, thinking and reasoning. Humans are naturally unhappy to deal with information that is unstructured and like to impose form. Having a hypothesis reduces anxiety, compared to the alternative of admitting to yourself you don’t understand what is going on. However, we naturally look for evidence to support our hypothesis, discounting contrary evidence even if it becomes overwhelming. This we know as confirmation bias and it has been the cause of many accidents. 

As alarming as all this sounds, we, as fallible humans, have instead evolved our environment to aid our biological deficiencies as much as possible in order to achieve the high safety standards we see in the aviation and medical industry today. Examples are, creating standard operating procedures, checklists, creating rest periods for crew and constant training to name a few combined into a holistic safety system. 

Sitting at the helm we are all immersed by an invisible intangible bubble. This is our capacity bubble where situational awareness, sensory perception and cognitive information bear a good relationship with the real world giving an accurate mental model. In the centre of the bubble is our comfort zone. Depending on external factors such as sleep, stress, fatigue, or maybe recency, since your last sail, the size of your bubble has differed. Knowing when we are getting close to the edge of our bubble and losing capacity or facing danger is something we need to be constantly aware of and it may come in different forms. Having that feeling of danger and our amygdala setting off our fight or flight instincts (such as the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck, sweaty palms or losing capacity with possible tunnelling vision or confusion) are all messages from our bodies early warning system. Whatever your trigger, it’s a sure sign that things are not normal and it’s imperative we have mitigating actions to protect our capacity and cognitive reasoning, keeping us within our bubble. Like a diver recognising hypoxia or feeling the light buffeting from the sails as you are luffing, we need to train ourselves to ‘pull ourselves back.’ What can we do (especially if we are the Skipper)? Firstly, try to avoid situations that may cause danger or significantly erode our capacity bubble in the first place. This can be achieved through planning, being conservative, or simply heaving too. If helming by hand, a good start is to make maximum use of automation and engage the autopilot or pass the helm to another crew member.

Conclusion

This yacht (left) was lost on a coral reef when all the crew’s attention was focused on unwrapping a fouled reef in their mainsail. Very sad, but very easy to do. If everyone gets involved and distracted with a minor issue such as a jammed sheet or a half-furled sail that has become trapped, a minor problem can very quickly become an emergency situation where you may inadvertently end up on a reef, collide with another boat or accidentally gybe harming a crew member. Almost all accidents happen from a combination of many factors and is known as the Swiss Cheese effect or ‘error chain’, where all the holes line up leading to disaster. Block one hole or remove one link from the chain and you may avoid a more serious situation. 

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