What Does It Take To Lead?

22 June 2016By Hillary Hoffower

If you’ve read Dockwalk’s June 2016 article, “The Well-Oiled Machine,” then you know that leadership is one of the keys to building teams on board. But how do you become a good leader in the first place?

Both Paul Ferdais of The Marine Leadership Group and Simon Harvey of N2 People Skills agree that leadership is much more than having certain personality traits. While it commands respect and responsibility, it’s acquired largely through cultivating a set of skills. Key among these? Effective communication, building high-performance teams, and knowing how to motivate others, Ferdais maintains.

“Leadership is not static,” says Harvey. “It’s not about charisma or a set of personality traits or just learning the qualities. Leadership is an action, a way of being. [It] requires you to continually adapt to the changing people and environment around you.”

That’s not to say that traits don’t entirely matter. While Ferdais prefers to focus on skills, he strongly emphasizes trustworthiness and enthusiasm. “I single out these two traits because trust is an invisible force holding people together everywhere,” he says. “As for enthusiasm, almost all other traits can be developed but enthusiasm is the one that someone either has or doesn’t have.”

And with trust comes building respect. “This starts by being respectful with others, no matter their rank or position,” says Ferdais, adding that leaders of all levels should keep in mind that respect is earned and doesn’t come with a title. “If a leader is rude or behaves poorly towards crew of different rank, no amount of skills training will help them earn respect from others.”

“Those that follow without trust do so not from inspiration or a vision, but because of the position the leader has, or a report that [has not yet] had the time to build any trust in the leader,” adds Harvey. “A deckhand when they first get on a yacht will follow the lead of the captain because they have to, not so much because they want to or that they trust them.”

On Harvey’s list of necessary traits is emotional intelligence in a nutshell: social skills, motivation, empathy, self-regulation, and self-awareness. “Respect and authority has to start with an understanding of self, or self-awareness — the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives as well as their effect on others,” he says. “Without an understanding of these, you can be leading by example in a whole different direction than you thought.”

He suggests jump-starting the process of self-awareness by using Everything DiSC, a tool that[1] profiles one’s personal behavior. This not only helps a leader assess crew’s different communication and motivation styles, but their own.

“As you learn about yourself, you actually open your eyes to others and it becomes easier to put yourself in other people’s shoes and better understand why they did what they did,” says Harvey, who employs the DiSC personality tool at N2 People Skills.

Besides emotional intelligence, just how else exactly can crew build these skills? The answer lies in a mix of training and direct experience on board.

As Ferdais points out, leadership is an all-encompassing competency that can’t really be taught in a classroom. “Leadership is practice. Leadership is trial and error. Leadership happens in the heat of the moment,” he says. “Leadership is built through experience being a leader and actively deciding to be better tomorrow compared with today. No one can teach this.”

Yet it’s the underlying skills that comprise leadership that can be learned in a training class or workshop. Ferdais, who focuses on skills development that anyone can learn no matter their rank, cites classes that focus on improving communication, learning how to effectively give feedback, build influence, handle power and authority, and learning how to motivate others as great tools to build leadership skills. It’s these kinds of personal and professional development courses that crew should take over the course of their career, he says.

Keep in mind, though, “The onus is on the participant to follow through with implementing what they have learned,” says Ferdais.

Harvey believes that leadership comes back to experience and an understanding of what it is you are leading and why. He strongly emphasizes having a vision, building alignment around that vision, and championing the execution of that vision. Having a vision helps you establish trust with others and stand out from the rest, allowing you and your crew to understand what you do as crew and why you do it. It also provides crew with a purpose and drives the creation of common goals that everyone will work together toward.

To establish a vision, Harvey suggests asking yourself these six questions from Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage: Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is important right now? Who must do what?

Once your vision is established, remember that it needs to be adaptable and flexible to work, aligning or realigning it as necessary. And don’t assume everyone gets it, says Harvey.

“Have an open dialogue to make sure of your clarity, be straightforward and transparent, try to see others’ point of view as well,” he says. “Remember, listening is not providing an answer halfway through someone’s question. You will shut down communication like this. Listening is hearing the whole sentence and then working on the meaning and purpose of the communication.”

Lastly, you must support, advocate, and defend your vision among your crew. “This is where knowing your crew comes into play as you had better know how to praise your people to be able to continue to motivate them,” says Harvey, adding as an example that loudly celebrating someone’s success who would prefer to have a quiet thank you over a beer at the end of the day may have the opposite effect than you intended.

But remember — while a department head must be a leader, simply holding a senior title doesn’t automatically make you a leader.

According to Ferdais, a department head who isn’t a leader in the eyes of the crew has to rely on their title, power, and authority to get people to fall in line; someone like this is often seen as a dictator who issues commands and expects to be obeyed. True leaders don’t need to rely on these things.

“Instead, they have influence with their crew, can persuade them to willingly work an extra hour, build loyalty with the crew and crewmembers, and consider the leader to be credible in their role,” says Ferdais, who adds that with certain changes to their behavior, department heads can be seen as this kind of leader.

If you’re the former kind of department head, change such as this is highly recommended. Because as Harvey points out, leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action with their own functions and characteristic activities, both necessary for success on board.