The Real Story Behind Australia’s 1983 America’s Cup Win

by Don McKenzie

The Adizes Institute is dedicated to helping executives and leaders gain a better understanding of what leads to success and what leads to failure. There is a complicated

The Australia II

The Australia II

web of different causes, symptoms and manifestations related to both outcomes.

I think the largest piece of the puzzle is making good decisions, and then moving those decisions into successful implementation. The best frameworks for decision-making and implementation, I have come across, are the frameworks of U.S. based, internationally acclaimed, management guru, Dr. Ichak Adizes.

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Dr Adizes, learning the Adizes concepts and methodologies in greater detail.

My passion for the Adizes Methodology comes from my own personal journey with ups and downs, and with the roller-coaster of successes and failures along the way.

Dr. Adizes’s theories not only explain why “what happened, happened,” but they also provide a set of tools that business owners, executives and managers can use to predict success and failure ahead of time. The Adizes Institute uses this experience coupled with a range of tools to help business owners, executives and managers.

I also enjoy reading books and watching shows that are “the story behind the story.” Real life situations where you know the front end of the situation, and then you’re able to find out more about what was going on behind the scene.

This article blends ideas around effective decision-making and my love of “the story behind the story.”

And so the story begins…

During one brief discussion, Dr. Adizes asked me if I knew of Alan Bond. I responded “of course” as ‘Bondy’ is burnt into most Australians’ memories and our culture itself. He was the former sign writer, turned billionaire who won the America’s Cup, only to end up in jail for fraud.

For those who don’t know, the 1983 America’s Cup was the occasion of the first winning challenge to the New York Yacht Club, which had successfully defended the cup over a period of 132 years.

An Australian syndicate representing the Royal Perth Yacht Club fielded the Australia II, skippered by John Bertrand, against defender Liberty, skippered by Dennis Conner. Australia II won the match races to win the America’s Cup, ending the longest winning streak in sporting history and ending U.S. domination of the racing series.

Most Australians have some recollection of the euphoric scenes after Australia won the America’s Cup. As noted above, it was the first time the USA had lost the Cup in its 132 year history, and it was our humble Aussies that snatched the victory.

In one of the bathrooms of the Adizes Institute, Dr. Adizes pointed me to a large silver plate with an embossed sailboat and the words “Friendship, Sharing & Caring”. This was a gift from none other than Alan Bond himself, who allegedly (I only say that because Alan died in 2015, and so I can’t have a chat with him myself) credits Dr. Adizes and his ideas as a significant factor in the win.

Having this Australian artefact hanging in the toilet was a bit of a ‘shitty’ spot to me. The late Kerry Packer kept a copy of the $1.05 billion cheque Bond gave him for the 9 Network TV stations in his private toilet as well, so maybe it’s the thing to do with Bondy’s gifts.

I know why Australia won. It was just the winged keel… wasn’t it?

If you asked most people what the secret to the win was, they would quote the special winged keel designed by Ben Lexcen. By all accounts this was the main contributor, but I’ve sometimes wondered if there was something else.

This was the first time ever that the America’s Cup needed a 6th, let alone a 7th , race to decide it. If it was just down to the boat and its special keel, should Australia not have been more dominant? America was the greatest technological country in the world and certainly had a few tricks of their own.

Whilst the winged keel has its benefits, it also has its drawbacks. It works best when sailing upwind where stability and the ability to produce side force creates a speed advantage and greater efficiency. However, downwind there is additional drag and it’s not good in choppy seas, so it isn’t all beer and skittles.

To me, this means there was more to the story than just the keel.

So, what is the connection between Dr. Adizes and the fact that Australia won America’s Cup? The relevance really starts with Dr. Adizes’s philosophy and teachings on the role of management.

The loop of change, problems and opportunities, and the need to manage effectively.

Bond had attended lectures from Dr. Adizes in the U.S. where it was taught that the need to manage starts with change. Change in the market, change in the company, change in anything.  This change then creates problems and opportunities. Problems and opportunities are interlinked. A problem handled well creates an opportunity, and an opportunity managed poorly creates a problem.

Managing is about making decisions in response to problems and opportunities, and then implementing those decisions. This creates more change, which in turn creates more problems and opportunities. It’s a continual loop. Change only stops when you’re dead.

For companies, and even in families and relationships, where there’s not a lot of change, there aren’t too many problems.  You generally see a calmness and things just going on their merry way. In high change environments, however, there are lots of problems and opportunities, and therefore a lot of decisions and management.

In high change environments, you often see a lot of conflict too. This conflict is inevitable because people have different styles, interests, and experiences that lead to differences in approaching and dealing with the problem or opportunity.  These differences drive conflict between people and the conflict escalates relative to the size of the problem or opportunity.

However, if you can harness the conflict and make it positive, a complementary team of differences will lead to superior decisions. This is because the same decision is being looked at from different angles and perspectives based on people’s styles, interests and experiences. These differences bring enhanced thinking and create a 1+1=3 situation, when compared to someone just on their own.

I find that people often prefer to hire people they like, or people like them. Often subconsciously rather than consciously. Why? I think most people have a genuine dislike of conflict, and similarities ensure low levels of conflict. But then you end up with similar styles, approach and perspectives which is not optimal.

As has been said: “When two people think alike, one is unnecessary.”

Complementary team decision-making also leads to faster implementation, as more of the potential future problems come to the surface there and then, before a decision is finalized. Potential issues are discussed, resolved and built into the decision itself, rather than being stumbled upon during implementation.

As wonderful and easy as this sounds, the differences themselves create real conflict, which can be incredibly destructive. I’m not going to go into how you properly harness conflict to create amazing results in this article. Suffice to say, it can be done by following a few steps which I’ll leave for another day.

Ok, so a complementary team makes better decisions, which can be implemented faster if conflict is harnessed. So what?

Bond explained to Dr. Adizes that in yacht racing, if you can make a correct decision and implement it just one second quicker than your competitor, then you can create an advantage of over a boat length.

If you do this repeatedly, you’ll be very hard to beat.

If you can make better decisions and implement those decisions faster than anyone else AND have superior technology, wow, you’re on to becoming a winner! Achieving superior technology doesn’t just happen. It starts with getting the right people, and those people then make good decisions, solve problems and exploit opportunities.

Once they hit the water, the seas and wind were always changing, which created new problems and opportunities for the crew. They could not control any of the problems created by Mother Nature’s changes. They could only react with decisions in light of these changes. The better and faster their reactions, the more successful they would be.

Bond understood that while he was the leader of the team, he couldn’t be on the boat with them giving directions, nor could he be there every second during design and construction. All he could do was create the environment for his team to be successful, whilst harnessing any conflict to ensure they made the best decisions possible.

To me, this is an important insight. 

Leaders should stop trying to control the things they can’t. They should become really good at creating the environment to empower their people, allowing them to react to change and execute great decisions.

This is what the Adizes Institute seeks to help its clients achieve. Spend less time giving direction, and more time building the organizational capability to deal with the change. Develop a broad, decentralized capability to make and implement decisions faster than your competition. If you do that, then you have the secret to long-term success.

In a documentary to mark the 30 year anniversary of the America’s Cup win, Bond gave a few hints on his ideals around differences and complementary qualities. When asked about the winged keel’s mastermind, Ben Lexcen, he said; “Ben was one of those people you meet, that was different and made a real impression.” He went on to say, “We needed Ben to complement our overall team”.

John Bertrand, their skipper, further complimented Bond and Lexcen’s partnership, harnessing their collective styles and experience of the crew. In the same documentary mentioned above, Bertrand and members of the crew give interesting interviews, which align with the broad concept of complementary styles, interests and experiences.

And so, after 132 years, a team from a humble little country known for beer drinking and kangaroo wrestling, took the America’s Cup home. Bond was able to build a complementary team that solved problems and exploited opportunities better and faster than their competitors.

Dr Adizes lamented that in the years after the win he warned Bond that he was on a destructive path with the self-driven, debt fuelled acquisition spree of highly unrelated businesses. But, the boost from being the guy that won the Cup catapulted his ego to such stratospheric heights that he was now invincible on his own. History shows this never ends well.

It’s highly likely that few, if any of the Australia II crew knew the name Adizes or how Bond had adopted his approach. They may, but in any case Dr. Adizes has the memory, Bond’s friendship, the silver plate and the pictures to prove it, and that’s enough for me.