If every article on Leadership in the Maritime world was represented by a toothpick, most of us would agree that we would require the services of a chain saw for a very long day to cut through all the dead wood out there.
So rather than fill your head with buzz words and flow charts, I am opting to keep it simple. Why? Because in the end, leadership is fairly easy to comprehend. It’s the execution that can be a nightmare. Although I have attended “leadership” schools like all the other alleged gurus, most of it was accrued the hard way…..with the infantry.
You can always tell when you have arrived as a leader because all of a sudden you get the really ugly calls to make. It goes very quiet and everybody looks at you. That’s a hint your time has arrived. So here are 4 decades of experience shrunk into a few bullet points. Take it for what it's worth and I have intentionally not put them into any sort of order of importance.
You have to sincerely CARE about your subordinates. If you don’t, no matter how well you think you are hiding it, they know. They always do. And if you don’t care about them, they are happy to return the favor.
Trust is earned, never granted. Every day. Once gained, it must be maintained and oiled on a daily basis. If they know you care and they trust you, they will follow you to the gates of hell.
Eat last. Every time. No excuses. Eat last.
Set high performance standards and vigorously train your subordinates towards that goal. Good crews have an onboard desire to “be the best” and will rise to the occasion. If you do it right, morale will improve.
No double standards, ever. What goes for them goes for you. It’s the fastest way to erode morale. If you do it, so can they, and vice versa.
Provide very clear instructions, preferably in manual form, as to expectations, conduct, etc. People seek structure and giving it to them prevents them creating it on their own in ways you may not like.
If you are a leader, then you need to be seen leading. I have no issues whatsoever with spending half an hour painting a hull or washing dishes with the crew. Some of the best time you will ever spend involves manual labor with the team and it pays huge dividends down the road.
We have mandatory Performance Counseling once a month. One on one with each crew member. It’s a powerful motivator and provides a forum for them to speak on topics they might not otherwise. As a personal example, I realize I can come across (initially) as aloof and distant so counseling is a time where I can be viewed as a thinking human versus a distant boss.
Get to know your crew. A kind word or showing interest works wonders with morale.
Having said that, I do not suffer fools lightly and if I terminate an individual it can be very public if I feel the rest of the crew can learn by the experience.
Having a drink or two with the crew ashore can be great fun and a boon to morale. Getting trashed with them is not. Never lose control or put yourself in a vulnerable position. Ever.
As a general rule, most people aspire to do a reasonable job. Remember that. Support/encourage those who do and get rid of those who don’t.
On administrative issues that are not critical, get “buy in” from the crew. Let them work out the duty roster for time ashore if need be. Or pick the restaurant. Provide some room for collective decisions. It allows them a say and develops junior leaders, which is invariably a plus for the team.
Get used to the fact that you are going to make some unpopular decisions. Accept it and move on. If it is truly in the best interest of the mission/boat/crew, they will eventually come around. And it they don’t you need to have a hard look in the mirror because there is a 50% chance you are part of the problem not the solution.
Enjoy a joke with the crew and don't be afrais to laugh at yourself.
Never hire blind - do your homework.
Surround yourself with the best talent possible, even if they are smarter than you are. Only weak leaders hire weak subordinates….because they are incapable of handling competent ones. Remember, only the dumb and inept hire the dumb and inept. It’s the Peter Principle in reverse.
Never stop trying to improve, both on a personal and professional basis. Otherwise you get hit by the Peter Principle going the other way.
You MUST enjoy your work. If you don’t, leave.
In the private side of the yachting community, its very easy to lose focus as the surroundings can be very …..plush. A lot of “leaders” fall into that trap, creating an “us and them” mindset with the crew. A maritime vessel, regardless of size, is a dangerous forum for “us and them”. Far better the single “we”.