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Going Down With The Ship?

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The important relationship between trust and leadership on board superyachts

Imagine if, as a boss, you had to live with your employees year-round, managing not only their professional performance but also their personal time. Imagine having control over their working hours and days off, how clean their bedrooms are, what they eat, whether they are allowed to drink alcohol in the evenings or form romantic relationships with their colleagues at work.

You live with your staff, you eat with them three times a day, you socialise with them; yet at all times you must retain the respect required to effectively and safely run this multi-million dollar company for your billionaire boss, who demands only the best. Not only this, but you are responsible for the lives of both your employees and your boss, in sometimes dangerous and stressful conditions.

Welcome to the working life of a superyacht captain, a leadership role unlike any other. A superyacht captain has anywhere between five and 50 direct employees, plus a legion of suppliers and contractors, meaning that running a superyacht is similar in many ways to being a CEO of a large, very busy company.

But that’s where the similarities end, rather abruptly. For CEO’s of multi-million dollar companies rarely live with their employees, rather going home after a hard day at the office to a distinctly separate home and social life. No such luxury exists for yacht captains. This can be a pressure on both leaders and the led; always being the authority figure is draining, as is always having the authority figure around.

So, how does leadership work under such pressure? The answer to this balancing act is trust. The multi-billion dollar yachting industry just wouldn’t work without it. It is the framework that underpins the entire structure of leadership and teamwork. Since the professional and the personal are interwoven, leadership on board simply cannot function without a solid network of trust running between all parties. And, fundamentally, with trust comes the money from yacht owners and clients who pay for our industry to exist. Without trust, we have no industry at all.

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The captain must trust their crew

To be a good leader in any management position, one must be able to delegate, showing trust that the employee is up to the job. In the corporate world, a grave employee error may cost millions (although it’s rare) whereas a grave error on a superyacht will undoubtedly cost many millions, and possibly even lives. Yachts break down, sink, and catch fire; they are vulnerable to pirate attack and hurricanes and poor judgement by their crews. The stakes are high, meaning that a captain must trust in their crewmembers, or they will not only fail as a leader but also suffer extreme stress through trying to control every last detail, 24/7.

On a personal level, captains must trust their crewmembers not to undermine them, or allow the natural resentments towards an authority figure to get out of hand. Because the captain has so much control over their employees’ personal lives, this is a delicate balance – and one that can only remain balanced with a certain level of trust.

Captains must also find a line between the personal and professional, and choose which crew are trustworthy as close friends in order to fill that human need. Leaders in yachting walk the very fine line between boss and friend, openness and vulnerability, being human and being an authority figure. As well as trust, this requires a good level of self-confidence, as a true leader must first trust themselves: trust their own ability to hire well, train well and manage well.  

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Crew must trust their captains

Crew must trust that the captain has their safety and wellbeing at heart; without this trust the crew dynamic quickly becomes toxic and often breaks down entirely. I can tell you from experience that sailing on a yacht in bad weather when you have doubts about the captain’s competency is an extremely frightening position to be in. Captains make mistakes, and sometimes become arrogant or foolhardy.

The Costa Concordia was a terrifying example of a captain that did not deserve the trust of the crew, passengers or owning company, and who further breached their trust by abandoning ship instead of remaining to direct the rescue operations. In the maritime world, the concept of ‘going down with the ship’, even if not a legal requirement, is a strong symbol of the contract of trust between a captain and those whose lives are under their command.

Meanwhile, working for a captain who disregards their crew’s emotional and professional wellbeing is extremely disheartening and leads to high and expensive personnel turnover. As in the corporate world, people in the yachting world ‘leave managers, not jobs’.

Yacht crew turnover is extremely high and careers are short, despite the generous all-expenses-paid salaries and glamorous days off in Saint Tropez. When you hear of a yacht that has the same crew for five years or more, you know you have found a yacht where the captain trusts the crew, and the crew trusts the captain. There is no loyalty and no longevity on board a yacht without trust.

Crew must trust crew

These networks of trust in leaders extend far beyond the captain’s role, and even beyond the trust-leadership dynamic between heads of departments and their junior crew. Every member of the crew - deckhand, stewardess, chef or engineer - must trust the other crew, for each time a crewmember drives the yacht, serves the guests or services the generator, the rest of the crew must trust that they know what they are doing.

At that moment, that person is in a position of responsibility and is therefore a leader. The stewardess in her cabin must trust that the newly qualified bosun is fit to drive the boat in the storm, or navigate through the Gulf of Aden, a high risk piracy area, with the lights turned off and windows blacked out to escape detection by pirates in skiffs with rocket launchers. Furthermore, if the crew do not trust each other, they cannot operate well as a team and the captain cannot trust them to do their jobs.

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Yacht owners must trust captain and crew

The captain and crew are responsible for the yacht owner’s life, assets and privacy. Not only must the owner trust the captain’s leadership skills to run his yacht like a multi-million dollar company in line with regulations, but also to deliver a luxury and safe holiday at sea for their family and friends. Furthermore, the yacht owner must trust that the captain will be extremely discreet and guard the family’s privacy, and that the captain will use their leadership skills to make sure the crew follow suit.

Captains must undertake (and trust) leadership training

Interestingly, until very recently there was no mandatory leadership training in the yachting industry and, while it’s now compulsory for new crew moving up the ranks, these courses were not made retroactive. Therefore there are captains in charge of the lives of 50 or more people, who have never had a day of leadership training in their lives. In this regard, the yachting industry lags far behind the corporate world, as well as aviation, where leadership training was introduced over 10 years ago, to much grumbling, and is now considered a vital part of leaders’ education.

Many yacht captains demonstrate the same resistance seen among corporate leaders when leadership coaching was first introduced, seeing the need for leadership training as a sign of weakness or poor ability.

However, just as leadership coaching is now mainstream in the corporate world, luxury yacht captains need to see that leadership and team building coaches are not out to criticise their failures, they are there to support and develop vital skills. Leadership training and performance coaching are also vital in yachting because the captains of yachts face leadership challenges that the corporate world does not.

Fortunately things are beginning to change and, in the six years I have been coaching, I am beginning to see a mind shift among captains and industry bosses towards recognising the importance of people management. Hopefully captains will soon begin to trust the value of leadership training and owners will start to see that the trust they need and expect can only be enhanced through such initiatives.

About The Crew Coach:
Alison Rentoul is ex yacht crew with 17 years of yachting experience, and a professionally trained personal development coach working with crew worldwide, helping them realise their highest potential at every level. 

*Image credits: torange us/Flickr/Shutterstock


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