Leadership Lessons from the Best Navigators in Open-Ocean Sailing

27 03 2011

The discovery and colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by ancient Polynesian navigators is one of the greatest feats of open-ocean sailing.

How great a feat? Take a good look at the Pacific Ocean. It is the size of the surface of the moon. The Hawaiian Islands are like tiny specs. These are long distances to travel in a wooden canoe.

Navigating an area the size of the surface of the moon, tiny wooden voyaging canoes were the space-ships of our ancestors

The trans-Pacific voyages that are legendary in Polynesian cultures are now well documented by Western science.

Quoted in London’s Daily Telegraph, Dr. Marshall Weisler of the University of Queensland said that the journey between Hawai‘i and Tahiti “now stands as the longest uninterrupted maritime voyage in human prehistory”. It was “mind-boggling,” he continued, “how Polynesian settlers found their way from one speck of land to another and back again, colonizing the last uninhabited parts of the planet.”

The prowess of the ancient Polynesians has also been proven by the Hawaiians themselves. In 1976 a reinvented ocean-going sailing canoe, the Hōkūle‘a, successfully sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti without instruments. Since then, the Hōkūle‘a has sailed more than 125,000 nautical miles (equivalent to six times around the Earth), also without instruments. These achievements provided evidence for intentional two-way voyaging throughout Oceania, supporting a hypothesis that explained the Asiatic origin of Polynesians.

During the many voyages of Hōkūle‘a over the last 35 years, the Polynesian Voyaging Society has re-learned a lot about the ancient art of wayfinding — what it takes to navigate tens of thousands of miles under sail across the open ocean with only human senses, intelligence and spirit to find the way.

In so doing, they have arrived at a unique leadership style, which adds Aloha and kuleana to qualities typically admired in Western business leadership. I will talk about Aloha in this post, and get to kuleana, the tough-love part of Hawaiian-style leadership, in the next post.

This article is dedicated me ke aloha pumehana to the memory of Herb Kawaini Kāne, an inspirational leader by the standards of any MBA program, a light for indigenous people everywhere, and a friend to my ‘ohana.

Hōkūle‘a amazed the world when she arrived in Tahiti in 1976

The necessity of Aloha

What do I mean by a unique leadership style? Consider the words of the late Hawaiian leader Myron ‘Pinky’ Thompson, a leader of the Polynesian Voyaging Society during the 1980s and 1990s, as quoted in Ben Finney’s Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging:

“What struck me about voyaging was that before you set out to find a new island you had to have a vision of that island over the horizon… Then you had to figure out how you are going to get there; you had to make a plan for trying out new things. Finally, you had to get out there and take a risk. And on the voyage you had to bind the crew to each other with Aloha so they could work together to overcome the risk and achieve the vision.”

Much of this description would be familiar to Western business leaders:

  • The need for a vision. Check.
  • The need for a plan. Check.
  • An appetite for risk. Check.
  • The ties of Aloha. Huh?

What is Aloha? Most Westerners know that Aloha is a precious word. As a greeting, it means both hello and goodbye, and conveys love or compassion. Easterners might equate Aloha to Namaste, or “the light within me greets the light within you.”

But that’s not all that Hawaiian language speakers and Hawai‘i residents mean when they say Aloha.

Hōkūle‘a has a lot of friends wherever she sails.

Aloha is a spirit

Have a look at the roots of the word Aloha in the Hawaiian language:

  • ’alo To be with, come near, go with, attend, escort, accompany, share an experience, endure
  • oha, thriving, joyous affection, joy
  • hā, life energy, life, breath

Parsing this with the rules of the Hawaiian language, many arrive at a translation that describes a spirit of “joyfully sharing life”.

The idea of a spirit of joyful sharing is a new one for Western business leaders. It is just about the opposite ruthless competition. But when you think about what it takes for a group to go the distance under dangerous, uncertain circumstances, you can see how this notion of Aloha would help sustain morale and eliminate the distraction of petty conflicts.

Another translation of the Hawaiian words ‘alo, oha and might be “a thriving relationship that endures.” This is a wonderful description of the relationship any business, government or institution would hope to have with its information technology suppliers, products and standards.

Hōkūle‘a is small but mighty. Here she is in Yokohama Bay, Japan.

Aloha is a set of values

Whatever you personally take away from studying the individual words, there’s more to Aloha than its definition. To Hawaiian speakers and students of Hawaiian, the word Aloha has an underlying meaning, what Hawaiians would call kaona. For Hawaiians, the power (mana) of a word or a chant lies in its hidden meanings.

For example, consider the kaona implied by the roots of the compound word Hawai’i:

  • hā, life energy, life, breath
  • wai, fresh water, vital fluids
  • i, word/ tone of the supreme god, the initial consciousness

The word Hawai’i literally means from the breath of life is derived from the water of life is derived from the universal consciousness. Whew! This is a lot to grok.

To me, the word Hawai’i means, “we are all connected to each other and the world.” And I believe this is something that business leaders would do well to remember.

So let’s get to the kaona of the word Aloha. Techies, you will love this, ALOHA is an acronym!

A-L-O-H-A are the first letters of the Hawaiian words for values that are dearly held in Hawaii. I am speaking of values held not only by persons of Hawaiian descent, but also by residents of the state of Hawai’i and the local business community.

As an acronym, Aloha stands for an attitude that values:

  • A, ala, watchful, alertness
  • L, lōkahi, unity, harmony
  • O, oia’i’o, truthfulness, honesty
  • H, ha’aha’a, humility
  • A, ahonui, patient perseverance

The kaona of the word Aloha is a thought-provoking for Western business leaders. Most business leaders I know would agree that these values are essential for a thriving relationship that endures.

If you are in the type of business that needs repeat customers (and who isn’t?), then thriving relationships that endure are required for long-term success.

Historian-artist Herb Kawainui Kane was the captain of Hokulea on her first voyage to Tahiti

Polynesian Wayfinding Lessons

During the Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s, the Hawaiian community took action to regain the cultural knowledge they had lost during the process of forced assimilation. Some of this knowledge was out there to be rediscovered readily. Other knowledge had to be reinvented through iteration and experimental archeology.

Open-ocean navigation was a particularly difficult skill to win back. The basic leadership requirements for an open-ocean navigator were clear from those with living memories, but they were almost impossibly high level:

  • The need for a vision
  • The need for a plan
  • An appetite for risk
  • The ties of Aloha

As a first step, The Polynesian Voyaging Society reinvented the double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe via a lengthy series of experiments similar (but for budget) to the development of America’s Cup yachts. To get an idea of the permutations and combinations of Polynesian and Micronesian canoe designs, check this page from the website of the late historian-artist Herb Kawainui Kāne.

Hōkūleʻa is a performance-accurate full-scale replica of a waʻa kaulua, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society was able to sail around the Hawaiian islands, no sweat! But they didn’t have a clear vision of traditional, non-instrument wayfinding methods for deep-sea voyaging. They didn’t even know how much they didn’t know.

There was no way that a bunch of guys, however bright and fit, could just jump into the 62-foot Hōkūle‘a and find their way to Tahiti. They had an appetite for risk, not for death.

Accordingly, Polynesian Voyaging Society leaders set out to locate a teacher, or kumu. There was just one man left in the world who could help — Mau Piailug, a Micronesian navigator from the tiny Carolinian island of Satawal. Navigator Nainoa Thompson describes Satawal this way:

“Satawal is a mile and a half long and a mile wide. Population 600. Navigation’s not about cultural revival, it’s about survival. Not enough food can be produced on a small island like that. Their navigators have to go out to sea to catch fish so they can eat.”

Mau had earned the title of master navigator, or palu, by the age of 18, around the time the first American missionaries arrived in Satawal to begin the process of Western assimilation. Satawal has no natural harbor, and had not been an early target of colonization.

By the time the Polynesian Voyaging Society reached out to Mau, Westernization was far along. Navigators like Mau had long realized that unless they bequeathed their knowledge to someone, it would vanish with their last breath. Mau was generous enough to divert the next few years of his life into educating the Hōkūle‘a team, even though the knowledge of a palu was sacred to Micronesians.

Mau Piailug’s Carolinian navigation system—which relies on navigational clues using the sun and stars, winds and clouds, seas and swells, and birds and fish—was acquired through rote learning passed down through teachings in the oral tradition. As The Economist wrote in Mau’s obituary:

“Mau did not operate on latitude, longitude, angles, or mathematical calculations of any kind. He walked, and sailed, under an arching web of stars moving slowly east to west from their rising to their setting points, and knew them so well—more than 100 of them by name, and their associated stars by colour, light and habit—that he seemed to hold a whole cosmos in his head, with himself, determined, stocky and unassuming, at the nub of the celestial action.”

Avid mainland sailor Steve Thomas was a student of non-instrument navigation and also sought out Mau Piailug as a kumu. In the early 1980s, Steve journeyed to Satawal to learn the ancient technique of star-path navigation. Steve’s research resulted in the critically acclaimed book about Mau Piailug, The Last Navigator, published in 1987. (Steve Thomas then became host of PBS This Old House, which is why his name may sound familiar.)

Mau Piailug talked to Steve about the qualities of a navigator, or palu:

“To be a palu you must have three qualities: fierceness, strength, and wisdom. The knowledge of navigation brings all three.”

Nainoa Thompson, now Hōkūle‘a’s navigator, recalled the first thing Mau said to the crew as the canoe was about to depart for Tahiti:

“Today we go to the ocean. Today if you have any problems between you, leave it on the land. Commit to the sea. Hōkūle‘a is your mother; take care of her. I am your father; listen to my words. That is how we will find the island we seek. “

As Nainoa Thompson tells it, Mau saw the crew as an ‘ohana, or family, bound by the ties of Aloha.

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5 responses

29 03 2011
More Leadership Lessons observed from the Polynesian Voyaging Society « NinaLytton.com

[…] from repeat customers and long-term partners (and who isn’t?), you may want to read the last post. But there is more to aloha than good manners. It is part of a larger value […]

14 04 2011
Leadership lessons from Black Bart, the most successful pirate ever « NinaLytton.com

[…] well understood by most pirate captains.  Essentially, pirates had their own version of Aloha, the value system that held ancient Polynesian crews together on voyages of exploration around the Pacific in the […]

14 04 2011
Leadership lessons from the most successful pirate ever « NinaLytton.com

[…] by most pirate captains.  Essentially, pirates had their own version of Aloha, part of the value system that held ancient Polynesian crews together on voyages of exploration around the Pacific in the […]

14 04 2011
Leadership lessons from Black Bart, the most successful pirate ever « NinaLytton.com

[…] by most pirate captains.  Essentially, pirates had their own version of Aloha, part of the value system that held ancient Polynesian crews together on voyages of exploration around the Pacific in the […]

18 04 2011
Leadership lessons from Arbella Captain John Winthrop, first governor of Massachussets Bay Colony « NinaLytton.com

[…] is true of the Polynesian voyagers who settled the Hawaiian Islands and Black Bart, the most successful captain in the Golden Age of […]

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