Leadership lessons from a life of adventure

Business Insights

Simon Walker’s business CV is one many will be envious of. He’s managing director of Parajet, the world’s leading manufacturer of paramotors (a fast-growing sport which involves paragliding with a motor on your back) and a non-executive director for The Adventurists and The Visa Machine. He’s on the board of several other exciting enterprises and regularly talks and consults at universities and events.

Alongside Simon’s business successes are a host of adventures, including racing around the world as skipper in the BT Global Challenge, styled the world’s toughest yacht race. We asked him for six leadership lessons he took from that race which he applies in his business leadership today.

First lead yourself

You can’t lead anyone if you aren’t in a good state yourself. Physically, of course, but here I’m talking about emotional and mental state. Frustration, anger, fear or despair are not helpful if they invade your behaviour or decisions. I self-coach daily, while driving to work. I acknowledge and analyse anything that’s bothering me and explore how to change it. This reflection creates objective distance so my working day starts with a positive attitude rather than subliminal dread. Time to reflect is often first to go when the chips are down, but I’d say it’s essential, however pushed you are. The alternative is a stress response and emotional hijack where clear thinking vanishes. Do whatever it takes for you to be able to think rationally.

Sail with what’s in front of you

In uncertain times we model out future scenarios, but can forget to optimise our situation in the here and now. In yacht racing there could be complex, conflicting weather forecasts, making the tactical next move hard to fathom. This uncertainly can erode morale. While you can’t control that uncertainty, you can control how you are sailing right now and your progress towards your destination. Sometimes you have to ‘sail with what’s in front of you’, optimise your situation so you’re always in the best possible shape to deal with whatever transpires.

Make decisions, but be brave enough to change your mind

Indecision is paralysing. On a racing yacht, you often have 50/50 calls, and if you delay a decision, crew members could stop pushing in a common direction, wasting effort and creating friction. In these situations, leaders should make a clear, unambiguous decision. If it’s a 50/50 call, you might be wrong. This is where a leader needs to change their mind. Sometimes it’s appropriate to communicate Plan B ahead of time, qualifying Plan A but having Plan B prepared and ready to go. Action focused on plan A, then switched to plan B is always better than dithering between the two.

The power of realistic optimism

In the Global Challenge races, the first section was straightforward: you belt down the Atlantic towards Cape Horn. Then you ‘turn right’ and battle the full force of the Southern Ocean all the way to New Zealand. On Toshiba Wave Warrior, as we approached Cape Horn, the mood tangibly changed under the weight of the Southern Ocean’s fearsome reputation. The team were uncertain, nervous, worried and needed encouragement. I’d experienced it before, so I knew what we were in for. But I also knew we could get through it. I aimed for ‘realistic optimism’ where we acknowledged the challenges we faced, but I highlighted my faith in overcoming them based on my previous experience and the training we’d done together.

Battlefield leadership

If they trust you to keep them alive longer, they will follow you. I’m often asked what it was like to lead a team through horrendous conditions in the Southern Ocean - day after dangerous day of uncomfortable sailing, with real risk of personal harm, gear failure and thousands of miles before a safe port. In fact, leading here was easier than during less tumultuous times. Relating to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in the Southern Ocean everyone was too concerned with personal safety and shelter to worry about personal animosities and differences of opinion. Hot food and drinks (even with added sea water) became the epitome of luxury. “Battle” focuses attention on priorities which helps to channel purpose and drive.

We all need a purpose

Finally, we all go the extra mile if we identify with the core purpose of our organisation. As leaders, we should be clear about what that purpose is, buy into it personally and help the team also make those links. I’m lucky that our core purpose at Parajet is one that I and my whole team buy into: enabling people to have flying adventures using the most accessible form of personal powered flight, with a backpack aircraft you can fit in the back of a car.

Sharing the trills and adventures of our pilot customers reminds us of that purpose every day.

To read more about Simon’s latest project with Parajet, please visit www.parajet.com