Surviving the Storm

storm-1406218_640On June 1, 1989, four men set sail from New Zealand aboard a trimaran called the Rose Noelle. They were headed for Tonga – a trip that should have taken them just a couple of weeks.  But three days into their voyage, a rogue wave stuck the Rose Noelle, capsizing it and trapping the men inside the main hull. They had little food and a rapidly diminishing water supply. To stay dry, they were forced to share a space no larger than a full-sized bed. They’d managed to salvage the boat’s EPIRB locator beacon, but its batteries ran out on June 13th. The men were now on their own, adrift with nothing but their wits to help them survive. And survive they did – for 119 days.

Catastrophe can strike without warning. Sometimes, it’s an internal failure that slows you down. Sometimes, it’s a change in market conditions that blows you off course. Sometimes, it’s a rogue wave that turns your entire world upside down. Regardless of the circumstances, I think the crew of the Rose Noelle can teach us a few things about recovery from disaster.

Put aside differences and work together. Once the immediate chaos from the capsizing had subsided, the men started trying to figure out what went wrong. As they looked for possible answers, they began to point fingers. Every misstep, real or perceived, caused someone to assign blame for the disaster to someone else. Tempers flared and days went by without anyone actually working on the problem. Finally, they realized that to get out of the ordeal alive, they were going to have to find a way to work together. Suddenly, they began to solve some problems. Teams won’t move forward until they stop blaming and start cooperating.

Focus on small steps. In a true survival situation, priorities are clear. Comfort takes a back seat to food, which is secondary to securing drinking water. For the crew of the Rose Noelle, drinking water was an immediate concern. The holding tanks had emptied when the boat capsized and they knew it only takes days to die of dehydration. Until that problem was solved, nothing else mattered. With all their efforts focused on a single issue, they soon had a workable solution. Now they were hydrated and ready to tackle the next challenge. Use the power of small, incremental achievements to propel the team forward.

Consider everyone (and everything) an asset. The men aboard the Rose Noelle had different degrees of sailing experience. The most seasoned, was John Glennie, the owner and builder of the boat. It was he who first suggested they construct a collection device to capture the rain water. But his idea was flawed and it was a less-experienced man – one who had been discounted as useless on the water – that dreamed up the modification that made it work. That experience led them to look at their surroundings in a whole new light. There are valuable resources all around you. Everyone on the team has value. Everyone. [Tweet “Everyone on the team has value. Everyone.”]

Maintain a positive focus. Despair was rampant in the early days aboard the upturned Rose Noelle, especially after the EPIRB stopped sending out its signal. It would have been all too easy to give in to that despair. Studies have shown that the single most important factor in survival is attitude. How you think is how you act, and what you look for is what you see. If you view the situation is hopeless, then you are doomed from the start. If you look for solutions, you’ll eventually find one. Keep your eyes – and your team – trained on what you have to gain, not on what you’ve lost.

I’ve always been fascinated by survival stories. It’s amazing what people are capable of accomplishing under the most extreme circumstances. And I think stories like this are great metaphors for any aspect of life, including business. It’s easy to lead when the sea is calm and the wind is at your back. It’s in those dark and stormy stretches that true leaders decide to take the wheel.


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