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E68 | Steering your ship through uncertain times with Brendan Hall

What’s the difference between skippering a yacht around the world and leading a multinational organisation? Well, according to Brendan Hall, inspirational speaker, leadership author and at only 27, the winning skipper of the world’s most demanding sailing event – The Clipper Round the World Race, not a huge amount. 

You see Brendan has taken his experiences skippering the winning yacht and applied them to the world of business. Because when you’re in the middle of the ocean and your crew has a mutiny early on, there’s not a whole lot you can do. You can either give up and lose the race, or take their feedback on board, abruptly change your leadership style and make damn sure everyone has the time of their lives in the process – and win.

And that’s just what Brendan did. 

“Good leadership in any industry kind of looks the same. So, the experience I had, and the lessons that I can give my clients I find very applicable and certainly relevant to their own experience leading a startup or more established business or some strata of management in a in a global organisation.”

On today’s podcast:

  • How Brendan got to the start line of the clipper yacht race
  • Overcoming imposter syndrome
  • Creating a culture of teamwork and inspiring an ethos to win
  • Why his team had a mutiny and how he dealt with it
  • Why a leader needs to empower their team, not own it
  • The importance of creating processes early on to ensure smooth operations


Steering your ship through uncertainty and change with Brendan Hall

What’s the similarity between being a CEO of a multinational corporation and skippering a yacht around the world? Well, for starters, you’re both in charge of keeping your team alive and the vessel afloat. So actually, one is a great metaphor for another. 

Which is why Brendan Hall is such a motivational speaker for CEOs and Executive teams, because he’s been there, he’s skippered the winning yacht around the world. He had to build a team culture, he had to instill a winning ethos in his team, he had to encourage and motivate team members during the hardest conditions to keep on going, and he had to take a long hard look at his leadership style when his team had a mutiny early on. 

He’s taken all of the lessons he learned during his 40,000 nautical mile, eleven month, round the world yacht race, and shares them in his current role as inspirational public speaker and coach. 

Creating a winning culture

“You’re not dealing with Olympic athletes at the top of their physical and mental game. You’re dealing with people who’ve signed up and paid a lot of money for the experience, one that’s been very skillfully marketed to them as this life changing, life defining thing.”

Brendan himself wasn’t a professional sailor, he was chosen to skipper the yacht from a pool of almost 500 applicants. But it was his job to get his team to pull together, to sail the yacht around the world, and hopefully win the race. 

“I had to come up with this, this ethos, this way of working, this you know, culture, that was going to obviously keep everyone safe – priority number one, bring everyone back to their loved ones. It was going to be high performing, you know, it’s a race around the world.” 

And he uses this analogy when he speaks to CEOs and leadership teams of multinational companies. He asks them where they’re going and what are their expectations, and most of the time they don’t know, they haven’t thought about the journey, they’re too focused on the end destination. 

But that is just a tiny part of the adventure. In order to get there, you have to clearly define your objectives for the journey before you start and to keep your team motivated along the way. You have to provide people with things they want, otherwise everyone’s expectations get wildly out of sync and you end up pulling in different directions, and the scope for conflict is enormous. 

Because a leader isn’t just there to guide his people to victory, it’s a two way street – he needs them as much as they need him. 

It’s not always about winning (although it really is)

Brendan discovered early on that everyone’s motivation for taking part in the race were different – one person stated he was there to win, another that she was there to find a husband, the rest were somewhere in between, with varying expectations. 

Like everything in life, we don’t all want the same things, but if we work in the same company, we are all working towards the same end goal. So finding out how to satisfy the needs of most people is going to smooth the process somewhat. However the fact that not everyone’s sole aim in a round the world race, was to win it, was surprising. 

“There were a lot of people who winning was just not on their agenda. It was about, you know, a catalyst for some change in their life. It was a big adventure that they always wanted to do but by the end of the race, and this may come across as cynical, but I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like winning.”

The importance of empowering your team

“One of our values we had, was that we will only use blame in the event of gross negligence or malice. Everything else is a learning experience.”

Brendan wanted to create a culture where everyone felt free to speak their mind, to be able to talk straight, to offer ideas. He needed everyone to know that there was no such thing as a silly question, nor that there were any statuses to manage. 

Every member of his team knew that their voice would be heard and that if anyone made a mistake, they wouldn’t be persecuted for it. And that empowered people significantly. 

Brendan knew that he had to have a team that were capable of self managing, should the need arise, that his presence wasn’t indispensable. An essential quality in any leader. 

“Because if I was killed, incapacitated or washed over the side of the boat, I had to know that my crew at a minimum could get themselves to a safe port from anywhere in the world, in any conditions.”

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