The victory this week by the American team Oracle, in the prestigious America’s cup yachting competition was hailed as one of the all-time great sporting recoveries. It coincided with a leadership intervention. It is tempting to see a simple cause and effect relationship.
The BBC account [September 26 2013] recorded the astonishing comeback:
Sir Ben Ainslie’s Oracle Team USA sealed one of sport’s greatest comebacks when they overhauled an 8-1 deficit to beat Team New Zealand [The Emirates, Nexpresso] in the America’s Cup decider in San Francisco. The holders won eight straight races to triumph 9-8 after being docked two points for cheating in the build-up. Oracle surged to victory by 44 seconds to retain the Cup they won in 2010.
The Kiwis won four of the first five races, making Oracle modify their boat and call Ainslie from the warm-up crew. The British sailing legend, 36, a four-time Olympic champion, was drafted in as tactician in place of American veteran John Kostecki and was instrumental in the US outfit’s resurgence.
“It’s been one of the most amazing comebacks ever, I think, almost in any sport but certainly in sailing and to be a part of that is a huge privilege,” said Ainslie, who combined superbly with Oracle’s Australian skipper James Spithill and strategist Tom Slingsby, another Australian who won Laser gold at London 2012, to drag the syndicate back from the brink in the most remarkable turnaround in the event’s 162-year history.
The New Zealanders, with impressive early pace upwind and slicker boat handling, opened up a seven-point lead (six to minus one) as Oracle’s crew and equipment changes took effect. But the US outfit, bankrolled by software billionaire Larry Ellison, were soon up to speed and won 10 of the next 12 races to lift the oldest trophy in international sport.
The Kiwis, led by skipper Dean Barker, came within two minutes of glory in race 13 in uncharacteristic light winds before organisers abandoned the race because the 40-minute time limit had elapsed. In the decider on San Francisco Bay, Team New Zealand edged a tight start and beat Oracle to the first mark. The Kiwis stayed clear around the second mark but lost the lead to the Americans early on the upwind leg. After briefly retaking the advantage, the Kiwis then watched as Oracle stormed ahead with remarkable upwind pace and remained clear for a comfortable win.
The ‘Ainslie and momentum’ story
One story is that faced with a deficit of 8-1 in a first to 9 match, the Americans called for Ainslie, and Oracle won eight straight races. Ainslie described how ‘momentum’ had swung in favour of the Oracle team during the fight back.
An alternative analysis
After four straight losses, the Oracle team introduced a whole series of changes, including serious technical modifications and personnel adjustments. Increased competitive performances followed, but another four races were lost. Then a win, almost certainly seen as a consolation before eventual capitulation. Even with an edge in performance, Oracle would have to survive all literal and metaphorical ill-winds for all eight remaining races. The team was close to losing the match in race 13, which was abandoned, boats becalmed, with their opponents well ahead. That would have ended the beautiful story of a glorious fight back.
In this alternative analysis, a series of changes both of technical and behavioural kind resulted in a significant improvement in performance. There was no identifiable tipping point, although one seems likely to be created in hindsight as the appointment of Ainslie.
Beware of simple causal explanations of change processes. Test theoretical explanations based on terms such a a tipping point or a momentum swing against the evidence of what happened in practice. In the UK the team has been regularly described as Ainslie’s team. The notion of distributed leadership has a long way to go.