Mental Toughness: Rowing the Atlantic

Mental Toughness: Rowing the Atlantic

O Kevin Gaskell

Former CEO of four successful world-class brands, Serial Entrepreneur, Adventurer

It’s not often I come across a person who has excelled in both the business and sporting/adventure world. But I found him. He could possibly be the academic’s archetypal specimen of a Mentally Tough person. He is confident in his abilities, a visionary leader, sees every challenge as an opportunity, always sees things through to the end goal, is empathetic and, annoyingly, he also looks ten years younger than he is. His name is Kevin Gaskell.
Kevin has a well earned reputation for being one of the most outstanding leaders of his generation. He has led iconic brands Porsche, BMW and Lamborghini to unprecedented levels of success. He is a serial entrepreneur and world class builder of exceptional teams.
It was leading the turnaround of Porsche from close to bankruptcy to market leader that saw Kevin, at the age of 32, recognised as one of the most capable leaders of his generation. He consolidated that recognition with 4yrs as Managing Director of BMW (GB) during which he led the business to record growth and a 500% improvement in profitability. Such flexibility and adaptability has confirmed Kevin’s position as an extraordinary and inspirational leader.
As if that wasn’t enough, Kevin has also found the time to walk to both the north and south poles, climb the world’s highest mountains, and in January 2020, along with 4 team mates, he set a new world record for the fastest ever Atlantic crossing by a 5 man rowing boat.
So how does Kevin operate? What makes him tick? I asked him about his experiences, his approach, and his strategies for coping with pressure and stress.
He explained that whether he’s just capsized in the Atlantic or is trying to land a huge investment deal for a business, he applies the same principles every time. “I look at the situation, I focus on what I can do, I don’t spend anytime worrying about the problem, it’s always about looking forward. Mental toughness, for me, is a determination to reach the goal. I never consider failure. I’d never sit down and think, Oh right, well, if we fail, what’s my excuse? I’d never have that approach.”
“People say to me, I don’t know how you do what you do. And I say, well I just do it. I don’t overthink it. My team and I prepared very carefully for the Atlantic row, in fact it took two years to plan. We tried to take away as many surprises as we could, to make sure that we had thought through as many of the potential challenges and situations as we could. And then we put all the practical things in place to overcome those.”
“We had a rule on the boat that everyone must be tethered at all times. That was a rule and we all stuck to it. It meant that we were tied to the boat and couldn’t be washed overboard – but what if the boat rolled and we were trapped underneath? So we fixeddiver’s knives at various positions around the boat in case anybody got tied up in a line that was dangerous, that way we could cut the line. We tried to think through a whole bunch of stuff that could go wrong and then we prepared for it. Of course, we planned as much as possible, but we still expected the unexpected – things will always go wrong.”
A trait of the mentally tough is to see a challenge as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Kevin only ever sees opportunity in any circumstance, “I think knowledge dispels fear. If we’ve thought it through, what’s to be afraid of? We know we’re going to see big waves. We know we’re going to get hit by storms. We know there’ll be sharks in the water. We knew all of that stuff, and we anticipated it all. The toughness comes from being afraid and doing it anyway.”
“There were moments on the boat when we were seriously frightened. Strangely, the day we capsized wasn’t the scariest time. In a huge storm we were thrown over board, we had broken oars, and for some people it may have been scary. But together, we managed to turn the boat over, climb back in, and start rowing again. We just got on with it.”
“The most stressful part of the Atlantic row was about 10 days before the end. We wanted to speed up because we had a chance to get a world record. We sat down and talked about what we could do, to accelerate the boat. The reality was that we had 4 pro sportsmen in their 20’s, and I am in my 60’s. We decided that I would actually drop out of the rowing. So it became my job, as the engineer, to service the rowers; if anything that broke, I would fix it, to keep it rolling along.”
“They rowed their hearts out and honestly, the toughest part was not being one of those rowers because I felt I was letting them down. In the end I worked out that I could actually add speed to the boat by complementing the auto helm and steering it away from big waves”.
“We all started hallucinating at points, through lack of sleep. Thankfully we had a very good skipper who’s a very experienced super yacht officer. He was very good on the navigation, but in reality, it’s not so complicated because you just need to remember that the sunsets behind you – always! There were some people in that race who’d been rowing entirely the wrong way at times.”
Kevin explained his approach to a challenge, “In any situation when things aren’t going to my plan, my first response is, right, what are we going to do about this? I’m already thinking of the solution. I focus on how to deal with the problem. It happens automatically. I’m not focused on the fact we’re flapping around in the water. I think about the next steps to get out of this situation, I suppose a lot of people might be panicking that they’re a thousand miles from shore and that they’re sinking in the ocean. That might be true, but we focused on what we were going to do about it. So I don’t dwell on the the situation, I focus on the solution.”
“Running a big business, or running a business in crisis, is far more stressful than rowing across the ocean, because it’s relentless every day; it’s existential. It’s easy to focus on the business failing, lots of people losing their jobs, me losing a lot of money and damaging my reputation for fixing companies. That is very stressful.”
So how does Kevin cope with stress and what would he advise to others? “I am human and, like everyone else, I do lose sleep. I might wake up in the night, thinking about the business, but it always seems better at 9am, than it did at 4am.”
“I reduce the stress by making decisions. Making a decision, even if it’s the wrong decision, is better than inaction. I think mental toughness is having the confidence to say, I’m making a decision here. As I’ve got older, I’m more experienced at doing these things. I trust my gut a lot more than I ever used to, because honestly, whether it’s a car business or a data business or a technology business, the issues are always the same; lack of clarity, lack of funding, a lack of coordination or lack of communicating. It’s always the same stuff. So we deal with the fundamentals, and rebuild the foundation.”
“I was never one of those CEOs who said, don’t bring me bad news. I want to be told the bad news, because if something’s gone wrong, I need to know. I need to address it. You don’t learn anything from the things that go well. Shit does happen, that’s the reality of the world.”
Another strategy Kevin uses for reducing stress is to never regret anything and continue to look forward. “It’s not about regretting decisions you made, because you look at the facts you have at that moment. You just learn from mistakes or things that didn’t go your way. You can’t stop me being smarter tomorrow than I was yesterday. So when I look back, I think, ok, now I understand why that didn’t work. So the next time I face a similar situation, I might go at it slightly differently.”
“I think mental toughness is about taking the pieces that you need to deal with, one by one, and dealing with them, one by one. Knowledge dispels fear – you can break anything down into pieces, whether it’s a sporting challenge or a business. It’s not about being brave or being courageous, it’s about breaking the challenge down into a finite set of elements.”
I asked Kevin what advice he would give to someone who isn’t coping with the stress, the pressure and the challenge of their job or life, and his advice is to adopt an approach of one step at a time. “I would say step back, and break the issue down into pieces. Which piece can you deal with? Then deal with that. And then look at the next piece, and deal with that.”
The behaviour of Mentally Tough people will often have an impact on the people around them, and Kevin admits, “I get very focused. Sometimes I don’t notice what’s going on around me. I just get absolutely focused, and my wife will start to notice that I am not ‘present’, that I am being remote. But I’m not moody, I may not be talking much because I’m just absolutely focused on a particular issue. She has told me throughout our whole married life that, at times, I can be very challenging to be around. Mind you, I’m far calmer now, than I used to be!”.
But there comes a point when even the toughest will have a wobble, when even the toughest can’t sustain the pressure, intensity and the pace. Kevin says in the early days, he used to shut himself in his office, close the door, and take some quiet moments to think.  Do his wobbling in private. “I tried never to show any weakness to other people, because I believed it would never be long before I was back in control again”.
Resilience is about bouncing back in the face of adversity. But the mentally tough bounce forward. “I never focus on what’s gone wrong, I always focus on what we can do to make it right. It doesn’t matter what’s gone wrong, because its in the past. I focus only on what we can do to make it right. The business is failing. The boat has turned over. I’m lost on a mountain. It doesn’t matter what it is, it might have gone wrong, but what can we do to get it right? And that’s where I direct my focus. And that’s what I would always say to people. Don’t look backwards. Look forward because you can only go forward.”
Kevin says he is most proud of achieving the simple aim of his Atlantic rowing team. “We have crossed the ocean and we all came out of it still friends. That was our main aim. I am very privileged to have been part of that. I feel incredibly fortunate”.
Kevin and his Atlantic rowing team are now World Record holders for the fastest row across the Atlantic in a 5 man boat. The epic journey, which took 35 days 19 hours and 50 minutes, raised more than £100k for the Plastic Soup Foundation, a charity that fights against the build up of plastics in oceans.
Kevin Gaskell, you are also now safely at the top of the Mentally Tough leaderboard.
Find out more about Kevin Gaskell at https://kevingaskell.com/
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