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Superyacht Captaincy - Myth Busting HELM

Comatose from headbutting the road, having fallen off his bike on the way ‘home’ from Le Totty d'Aur, Captain Horatio Hardy was astonished to find himself horizontal under violent white lighting that seemed to leak around a silhouetted figure; a female form hovering over him (in his hospital bed). Perhaps he was dead, and in heaven …

No, he wasn’t. Details pointless here, other than to explain that he’d been celebrating his fateful good fortune with a pastis or two. The unlikely target of a recruiting campaign and a sucker for flattery, he found himself unable to resist a job offer – his first in 20 years since retiring as an ancient commercial and naval sea captain, one-time sleuth, teacher and marine accident inspector. He was asked to teach ‘HELM Management’. 

In truth, he wasn’t inclined initially to teach this arcane subject – wrong word ‘teach’, it smacked of arrogance – no, he would ‘facilitate’ and let the students enlighten themselves. He thought long and hard: what to cover, how to hit the spot on the ‘learning outcomes’, how best to massage a massive, crucial subject into a mere five days. Deep in thought, fighting through the fog of anecdotes that addled his tired but full brain, his sudden Eureka moment struck... he knew what to do: on starting the course, and without any form of polite greeting, he would stand and bellow:

"Ow many of you are ‘omosexuals, and how many fat, tattooed munters, black chaps or devout muslims do you work with?"

‘Yes’ thought Horatio, ‘that should grab their attention nicely!’.       

You might be surprised to know that the biggest single subject in the professional syllabus at Britannia Royal Naval College (and most, if not all, naval colleges worldwide) is leadership. Variously known by euphemisms aplenty; my favourite being the beautifully simplistic ‘getting things done’. In the commercial world, it’s rather catchily known as HELM: Human Element, Leadership and Management. In plain English, Human Element means ‘people’.   

As an 18-year-old, over-confident midshipman (the lowest form of naval life), I thought it all rather silly; too much irrelevant play acting, a piece o’piss made to appear deliberately and falsely difficult, buggering about building bridges to safety across bottomless chasms... load o’bollocks! 

So, when I now start a HELM course for salt encrusted masters and chief officer/engineer/steward(ess), I always ponder my early ‘insight’ and look back at my own former ‘green’ attitude with a wry smile. In truth, I actually knew less than the square root of not much about responsibility for people. At some point, I might slip in the somewhat crass (but nevertheless useful and deliberately combative) question my alter ego Horatio conjured up above (more tellingly of which later). But I usually start with a brisk polite greeting, a concise personal introduction and then I ask one simple question:

‘Why are you here on this course? Is it because you want to learn and acquire the leadership and management skills and attributes of a Winston Churchill (some muttering), or maybe a Nelson (Admiral or Mandela), or, perhaps your favourite hero who influenced you; a former boss or captain? Or how many of you are here rather begrudgingly (because it’s cost you plenty) simply for a tick in the box, a ‘certificate’ necessary for onward and upward personal development?  Come on... how many of you think this week is probably a load of complete bollocks?’   

By the final mini-question within a question, the troops are starting to smile a bit, loosen up (my projected manner is deliberately wholly non-confrontational). A hand goes up, then another, or someone starts nodding, some suppressed laughter... and the revealing reality tells all, especially when I – their instructor no less! - confide in a stage whisper and a conspiratorial pally wink, ‘because I did; all that f*^&ing about with oversized Lego!’*

*Don’t misunderstand me; some management ‘games’ are useful.

Now, armed with the less than shocking news that most of the students are in the classroom only because they have to be and, yes, because several confirm their disdain for such a ‘poncey, fluffy, meaningless’ course that ‘can’t actually be taught anyway’ (adherents of the ‘you can either lead or you can’t’ school of thought) I appeal to their sense of reason and make a sincere appeal. I ask them to do me a favour. I simply confirm that, to an extent, I understand their views, I agree with some of their cynicism, but ask that they simply accept that, in fact (big word that, ‘fact’), with five commands (ashore and afloat) under my belt and as a former civvie CEO, I have changed my mind a bit since I was a ‘wet behind the ears’ naval ‘cadet’.

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There are data, including empirical peer-reviewed data, tested and shown beyond reasonable doubt that ‘getting people to do what you want them to do’ can be broken down into identifiable, constituent parts that actually can be taught, discussed, practised and (by some) mastered to positive effect. And, I am pleased to tell you, the vast majority of the doubting Toms seem to acquiesce, their body language (50% of their communication media) softens, and off we go, motivated... into the syllabus! 

There is a problem with defining a leadership/people management syllabus; ask 10 experienced senior leaders/managers what should be included and you will, I guarantee, get 10 very different answers. I taught leadership at BRNC; I recall my boss, the Commander of Training (the ‘Dean’), complaining that although he enjoyed his job it did come with some frustrations; not least that everyone of his many staff instructors reckoned he/she knew how to do his job better than he did! Such are the nebulous arts, and HELM matters – each level of that many layered onion – generate as much heat as any; in fact, usually more.

I ‘instruct’ all of the Master 3000 level courses, and HELM is by some margin the most animated (or it is the way I do it!!); students get angered, even offended and very occasionally tempers flare, and I love it! Why? Because it shows that people actually CARE; it generates emotion.

On one or two occasions it has actually become a little too fraught, but it is generally a good, positive thing to challenge and exchange views, swap sea dits and reap the benefits of the wealth of experience ALL the students bring – particularly as it applies in the peculiar environment of commercial yachting, about which I know nothing from personal experience, and don’t pretend otherwise.

I like to see the (dare I say it) all too rare non-Caucasian student, and women bring an essential gender-based (or is it gender-biased?) viewpoint to a workplace that is by any measure conspicuously ‘blokey’. And underpinning the vast majority of the syllabus ‘headings’ (e.g. professional knowledge, communications skills, motivation, maintaining discipline, and many more) a standing question is posed to hover in the mind of each student: am I sensitive to my own strengths, and (more importantly), do I recognise my own weaknesses?        

The reason Horatio didn’t fancy ‘teaching’ the subject of HELM is because he’s a wise old sage; he’s made umpteen, nay countless, leadership errors in his long career of undiscovered near mutinies, the rash and coarse handling of disgruntled crewmembers, over-zealous personal ambition colouring his own judgement (aka cognitive hysteresis with more than a hint of Expectancy Bias for the HELM jargon spotter!).

What mistakes have you made? Illustration by anecdote is a useful instructor’s tool. But greater still are the students’ contributions that can and do generate ‘heat’; it’s cracking! And in the genuine spirit of the prevailing view, everyone is invited to contribute, to be taken seriously, to disagree (politely!) and challenge the generally accepted norms. Is it acceptable for the master brazenly to be having an intimate relationship with the junior stewardess? Discuss. What is said in the room, stays in the room; it has to.

Everyone contributes, but I will share with you one of just two occasions when I have felt compelled openly to disagree with a student’s view. Discussing the various factors that motivate an individual and how they might be harnessed by ‘the boss’ to maximise effective output, we touch upon several positive drivers: for example, reward (salary/promotion/praise) and the maintenance of standards (pride in work). These fall into the former category of the carrot and stick principle of leadership. Straight forward; not too contentious. Much leadership theory might well fall into the ‘statement of the bloody obvious’ category but some others are more binary; for example, many think that ‘sleeping’ with the troops is heinous; others (or so they tell me with apparent sincerity) think it’s a perk of the job! It’s certainly not a crime... but wilful disobedience of a lawful order is. So what? You tell me.

Back to the point I openly disagreed with in class. When discussing motivation - the methods and tools available to the boss to encourage positively (i.e. carrot) - most seemed to agree on the general points; the only discussion being what priority each factor merited relative to others. Good, interesting stuff.

But then a seemingly timid student interjected, quite stridently, that he’d read in an American university study report that the greatest, single motivator is fear. FEAR. He went on, ‘It’s very useful; I use it all the time so that they know they could lose their job at any time’. Initially, I actively fought to control my own instinct (which was quite extreme), as I sensed were several others, but I felt compelled explicitly to say that I disagreed (to the evident delight of the others in the classroom). Big subject, too big to discuss here, but perhaps you agree? Told you; it’s a good course that gets blood flowing!    

We discuss all manner of subjects including the thoughts of great (academic) men; Adair (leadership theory), Allison (decision-making) and Belbin (character skills/attributes vs strengths and weaknesses) and many others.

We talk about collective decision-making versus the ‘loneliness of command’ (which is much misunderstood), we practise effective communication, including hearing (and listening). And most of these issues can be demonstrated by data obtained in the classroom; it’s not just because ‘I say so’ (remember Horatio’s disdain for the idea of a teacher/pupil style course, rather than the collegiate discussion-based approach.) Trust me, it’s actually good fun. But not all of it is funny; far from it. And nor should it be. Command and charge at sea is a great privilege, indeed an honour to be responsible for the wellbeing of others. The uniforms look nice too, and the bosses get paid more. Result. But sometimes they have to earn it.

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Towards the end of the course, I set aside a period for discussion about two crucially important leadership/management issues: mental health and the extreme end of ‘duty of care’, especially delivering unwelcome news. The former is usually much enhanced by (wholly confidential) accounts of students’ experiences and observations – you can hear a pin drop and everyone in the room is always hugely grateful to the contributors. Then we move the discussion on: delivering bad news and facing up to something you – the ‘boss’ – really don’t want to do. Its impact is dramatic, always. Try this:

The Master, Ben, is in his cabin and the intercom from the OOW on the bridge buzzes. ‘Captain, there’s a sat-phone call for you on the bridge; not sure who but says he’ll only talk to you’.  Unfazed, Ben nips up to the bridge and takes the handset; after polite greetings the caller, who seems a little nervy, starts to unravel the purpose behind the call.

‘I’m Fred Johnson; we met briefly but you know my brother Jimmy ….’

‘Yes sure, Fred, of course I know Jimmy – he’s our second engineer’.

‘Well Captain, I’m sorry …. and really, I’m calling on behalf of our Mum, er, well, you see, this morning there was a terrible accident, a car crash, and his wife and one of his two kids were killed.’ Ben is stupefied but could hear and sense suppressed weeping; fighting back tears.

At this point Ben is stunned, and speechless. Suddenly Fred continued, voice cracking, ‘sorry to have to ask you, but could you tell Jimmy please’. Click. The phone went dead, leaving Captain Ben on the bridge staring at the distant horizon. 

There are no crass jokes or gags in the room. I leave it to sink in, and then set the context: you are on passage between the Azores and Antigua, mid-Atlantic. No guests on board, ETA Falmouth, Antigua in three days.


What are you going to do, Captain?

This article is not the place to dissect what is said or how the discussion develops. Guilty as charged: I feel strongly about this subject – I was once that captain faced with a similar challenge; appalling. Horrendous. Nightmare.

A few morsels. One suppressed comment I heard stage-whispered was ‘f*^k all to do with me’, and that was the only other occasion when I (and, as it happens, the others in the room), openly disagreed with a student’s viewpoint. We talk about how the captain might or should respond, who does he talk to, why, when; does he tell Jimmy now, or does he wait, is he equipped with all the essential information? If not, what does he need; how does he get it? Where and when does he tell Jimmy the appalling news, where does he tell him and what words does he use?     

What words does he use? What words does he use? Time for a bit of role-play. One student, picked randomly, assumes the character of the captain in his cabin, another is the chief engineer, Jimmy’s immediate boss. Another student plays Jimmy; he is invited by the captain to come in and sit down. Silence in the classroom.

You have to be there. It is a huge privilege to work with healthily ambitious ‘yachties', and this is always a humbling moment; not for the faint hearted. Hairy arsed tough guys play acting on a course – it’s just a course! -  and, believe me, nobody smiles; lips are trembling and eyes are welling (and not just the actors!). It is electric; it epitomises HELM at its most extreme.

So, that’s all I’m going to reveal; but there’s so much more. Why did H ask that crass and tactless question at the beginning of this article? I am not a yachtie, but I have come, increasingly, to realise that large yacht captaincy brings with it some extreme, often unique leadership and management challenges. I could write a book but my favourite tip from a wise, experienced hand is: ‘when the owner asks you to do something silly, have the confidence to look him in the eye, smile respectfully and reply, ‘‘boss, you pay me not to do that’’.

Ask yourself: what is the purpose of your vessel; does that drive the mission statement and management plan through which your ship (not a boat, FFS!) is operated? Do you actually have a management plan? Finally, ask yourself this: why am I in commercial yachting, and how does that sit with my yacht’s mission statement? How does it help me recruit and motivate the best people? 

OK, it might cost a few quid (!), but come on the HELM (Management) module and investigate the edge of the envelope; press the edges back and join in – you have MUCH to offer. You really do. And, like me on every course I facilitate, you might just learn a thing or two about getting your troops to do what you want them to. Top tip - it helps if they want to do it too!!    

Sean O'Reilly is a freelance maritime consultant, a leading oral prep classroom instructor and personal mentor. He teaches all master level modules, most recently in France, Spain, Greece, Italy and the USA. Sean's next article probes more deeply into a related area: the help a captain might occasionally need; the role of the mentor.   

You can contact Sean directly by email.
See more articles by Sean here.


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