Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lessons from Captain Herreshoff

I had the opportunity to visit the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol RI recently, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest in boats, yachting, marine architecture or simply the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century.

The museum provides a wonderful insight into a fascinating figure of American history, Nathanael Green Herreshoff, and can teach some valuable lessons on leadership. For those who don’t know, Herreshoff was one of the preeminent naval architects of his age, and with is brother’s business genius, ran one of the most successful yacht yards in history, turning out a long line of successful and innovative yachts, as well as the US Navy’s first torpedo boats.

What is of note is Herreshoff’s success is due to a few characteristics that are essential for any great leader.

Intelligent – Herreshoff was unquestionably a very intelligent man who studied his profession endlessly, eventually mastering every facet of the design and construction of yachts. This included the Herreshoff yard making their own bronze fixtures, designing their own engines and cutting and sewing their own sails, never mind the designing and building of the hull of the yacht.

Herreshoff experimented with a wide range of designs and concepts, including such items as the self stowing (folding propeller), the first patent on a catamaran, developing a technique to splice wire to rope, a number of techniques to build lighter and stronger wooden hulls, the first fin keels and the first bulb ballast on a fin keel. In all he designed more than 2000 yachts to include five that defended the America’s Cup. This list is by no means complete.

Focused – Herreshoff focused on his design and construction work. Herreshoff understood yachts and ship design. He did not understand all the ins and outs of business. Nor did he spend time trying to master it. Instead, he remained focused, throughout his 72-year career as a naval architect, on mastering every facet of ship and yacht design and construction. The results speak for themselves, from the long list of innovations to the long list of successful designs and the incredible number of designs that are still being used. But ‘Captain Nat’ was not a businessman nor did he try to be. Thankfully he had his brother John. There is a lesson here for many innovators and entrepreneurs: it isn’t necessary that you know how to run your business; it is necessary that you find someone you can trust who can manage your business. Together the Herreshoff Brothers were an incredibly successful team and each focused on and played to their own strength. If either had tried to succeed on their own neither would have been the success they became together.

Uncompromising on his vision – Finally, Herreshoff knew what was the right answer in his designs and was uncompromising in pursuing the answer. The results, represented in the long line of fast and very successful yacht (and torpedo boat and motor launch designs) are self-evident. Again and again he would develop a new approach to an old problem in order to save weight, provide greater strength with the same weight, develop an easier means to do something so that the overall result was faster or easier, etc. This led to a wide range of additional designs in various pieces of boating gear, such as various types of winches and fasteners that were lighter or smaller or easier to use. At the same time, it is fair to say that his brother’s business acumen, and his ability to successfully argue with his brother, guaranteed them both a great deal of financial success. His brother was, in his own way, as uncompromising as was ‘Captain Nat.’

In the end, this commitment to excellence and his drive for ever faster and more capable yachts advanced the entire naval design industry, and we have all benefited in various ways, small and large, from his efforts.

71 years after his death it is also fair to say that you can mention the name Herreshoff to virtually any naval architect anywhere in the world (and many sailors and yachtsmen) and you will get an instantaneous response, usually accompanied with a smile as they remember their favorite Herreshoff design. In doing so, they are both saluting a fascinating figure and recognizing the characteristics of one of the leading figures in the history of naval architecture, and a worthy example for anyone, afloat or ashore, who is interested in truly leading his or her industry.


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