There are three principles that make a successful team: empathy, eloquence and endurance, according to Joe MacInnis, speaking at the Western Conference on Safety in Vancouver on Monday.
MacInnis is a renowned explorer who has spent a lot of time with teams in high-risk environments, such as the troops in Afghanistan, astronauts at NASA and the diving teams in the deep ocean. He also worked with James Cameron on the director’s DeepSea Challenge project, which culminated in a 7-mile dive into the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. Through working with these teams, MacInnis has learned a lot about leadership and what he calls “genius” teams, or ones that perform exceptionally well, especially during difficult times.
The first key to genius teams is deep empathy. Deep empathy is a “molecular blood-deep feeling” for the team, the task, the technology and the terrain, MacInnis told the 890 conference delegates at his opening keynote session. Central to this is the emotional intelligence to understand your own feelings and the feelings of your team partners.
When MacInnis was diving down to the wreck of the Titanic, he was clearly nervous, so to calm his nerves, the captain paused for a “picnic” on the ocean floor. He took out sandwiches and a bottle of Beaujolais wine and they took a much need break before heading out to explore the Titanic.
“It was a wonderful example of team empathy: anticipating the needs of your team partner, performing excessive acts of kindness. And we went in and spent nine hours on that wreck. We went to the stern and yes I was terrified a little bit but I was confident because of this team empathy they had extended,” said MacInnis.
Deep eloquence is when someone has the ability to articulate their objectives and inspire their team with words and actions that are accurate, brief, clear and clever. Deep eloquence can also be exhibited through the art of storytelling and humour.
“To command the moment, we have to command the language,” said MacInnis.
Deep endurance is honouring your values with the physical and mental resilience to succeed in the mission, no matter how long or difficult. When MacInnis was working with Cameron on the DeepSea Challenger project, they encountered many setbacks.
“This was the toughest project of my entire professional career,” MacInnis said. “We had a new and untested team, a new and untested sub… We had injuries from heaving decks, slippery stairwells, cables under tension and motion sickness. It’s 60 days of deep sea gorilla warfare.”
The first dive — and several others — was a bit of a disaster with basically all of the technical systems failing. Then, two men who were apart of the National Geographic film crew died in a helicopter fire on their way to the ship. Everyone was devastated but they made the choice to continue with the mission and take it one day at a time.
“We succeeded because of leadership principles that everyone in this room has within them: empathy, eloquence, endurance,” MacInnis told the conference delegates. “We chose our words with the precision of poets, we traded trust by the pound and, haunted by a terrible tragedy, we endured."
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