The Uniqueness of Maritime Leadership by Captain VS Parani

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(Image Courtesy: Capt VS Parani)

‘Everything starts and ends with leadership. Nothing else we accomplish, no other priority we pursue, is of much consequence if we do not have sound and effective leadership in place to enact it. We all have a responsibility to develop our own leadership potential and that of the Sailors’.

  • Admiral Michael G Mullen, US Navy

There are over a hundred thousand ships and over one and a half million seafarers worldwide. These men and women are responsible for the ship and cargo worth several million dollars, not to mention the twenty or so people on board. Each one of them is a leader.

A Third Mate leads a team of seafarers at the mooring stations. He is also responsible for his own navigation watch, where he stays alert throughout the 8 hours of watch, knowing that his actions would directly impact the safety of the ship and the crew below decks. It does not always go right- like in the case of the cruise ship Empress of the North, grounded on a rocky shoal in Chatham Strait, Alaska in May 2007 due to an incorrect manoeuvre, poor situational awareness, and unfamiliarity with the bridge equipment.

A Chief Officer’s unique role is that of cargo officer. He oversees the deck and the catering crew. Here again, when he does not lead with expertise, the consequences are disastrous – in December 2003, the heavy-lift ship Stellamare capsized and sank in Albany, while loading a 308-metric-ton generator for a power plant. This major marine casualty was caused by improper ballasting and the speed of cargo handling during the loading operation.

The Captain and Chief Engineer’s leadership skills are perhaps the most critical. Besides being able to manoeuvre the ship in and out of ports safely, they also ensure that a robust safety culture is maintained on the ship, and communicate effectively both within and outside the ship.

This did not happen on the chemical tanker Maria M which ran aground while approaching Göteborg. The Master, 66-year old was experienced, but not fully familiar with the ship’s characteristics. He executed a series of manoeuvres which confused everyone on Bridge. He also silenced his Bridge Team by calling one of his crew an ‘idiot’. Probably due to the atmosphere created by the Master, the other navigator on the Bridge could not express his apprehensions about the imminent grounding.

There were similar failures of leadership on the Titanic, Exxon Valdez, Costa Concordia, and the El Faro. Every incident, on some level or the other, resulted from a failure of leadership at sea.

Leadership skills are universal. From Lao-Tzu to Peter Drucker, the philosophy of leadership has remained more or less the same over two thousand years. But when at sea, the context in which leadership is applied is vastly different from that applied by a banker or a marketing manager.

Unlike most decisions made in the boardroom, decisions and actions at sea can have immediate life or death consequences. The environment which the crew calls home for months, is not only unique but also constantly changing. The ocean is a life-giving, yet unforgiving environment. These variables are what make strong leadership an imminent requirement for any mariner.

Leaders at sea do not need excellent oratory skills, or think of complicated strategies; they need to be experts in their area of work, lead their own focus and attention, lead their team, implement safety systems, and make effective decisions. Every seafarer, no matter his or her experience, needs to develop and apply their leadership skills with intention and consistency.

On the El Faro, the experienced Captain made a wrong decision to take a route which would put the ship directly in the path of a storm. This was despite alternate routes having been suggested by his colleagues. Unfortunately, the ship was lost with all hands. This is the unique nature of maritime leadership at sea. The sea reveals leadership failures almost immediately, and it’s unpleasant when that happens.

Bon Voyage and Safe Seas!

This article was contributed by Captain VS Parani, FNI, FICS, CMarTech-IMarEST, exclusively for Sea News. Parani is the author of Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, the world’s first book on leadership for mariners, by a merchant-mariner.