Iron Fist or Velvet Glove – What’s the Best Approach?

8 April 2009 By Lisa Hoogerwerf Knapp

Some captains are easygoing with their crew, while others seem to have been mentored by Captain Bligh. Which of these two radically different “management styles” is the most effective?

“I’ve [done] both,” says Capt. Jef. “I was a slave driver, leading by example, working harder than them. When you are young, you have the energy, but they would always follow me. I was more self-assured the last few years I was a captain,” he adds. “I led efficiently and I was easier on them than I was on myself.”

“I’m a laid-back guy,” says Capt. Ric. “But I try and hire people who know what to do…self-starters.” His strategy: get the first mate to be the heavy and crack the whip.

Capt. Ric has never hesitated to fire a problem crewmember, however. “I give ’em enough rope to hang themselves and then they’re off the boat wherever we are,” he says. “Three times in 28 years, I sent someone off.” But it was always for a good reason. “The kick-your-ass mentality, I think, is an ego thing that stems from insecurity and causes some captains to flip mates like pancakes.”

Whichever management style a captain chooses, it’s important to be consistent. One mate says he left a yacht after one year’s service because he was hurt (he had a hernia), was homesick and was done with being verbally abused by that particular captain. “I had the hours and got my ticket,” he says. “I was also worn out. I weighed 200 pounds when I came aboard and left at 167.”

For that mate, it was hard to deal with a captain who flipped switches. One minute, the captain was his buddy and drinking pal and the next would curse him out royally. “Then…he buys me a watch and says, ‘You’re my brother from another mother,’” says the mate, who never knew whom he’d be working for next – Mr. Jekyll or Capt. Hyde. “His feelings were hurt and he thought I was a traitor when I left the boat.”

“I know the guys who rule with an iron fist, but I don’t know the velvet glove guys,” says Capt. Russ. “In the old days, it was do it my way or the highway. ‘I know better, I am older, shut up and get in line.’”

Today, it’s different. You hire a good crew, let them perform and correct their course, if need be, to keep them on track. Set an example and the crew will follow along. “I grabbed a hose,” says Russ of his last command. “They see the captain working with them and having fun. The engineer said, ‘That’s my hose.’ I said, ‘I am the best rinser ever, I went to firefighting school.’ I just made it up.”

“There’s a time and a place to rule with an iron fist but not until you earn the crew’s respect,” says Russ. “You don’t get it until you walk the walk.”