The militaristic mindset of an older generation is giving way to a more collaborative approach.
By Wendy Laursen
Seaman James Derek Lovelace died after participating in a U.S. Navy SEAL training exercise earlier this year. He was treading water, in uniform, with his boots and mask filled with water, while being splashed, yelled at and allegedly dunked by an instructor. It was clear that Lovelace was struggling, and he was eventually pulled from the water, too late to be saved.
The exercise was designed to simulate the adverse conditions that can be experienced by SEALs on the job, and such training is arguably irrelevant to merchant seafarers. However, the maritime industry has a culture rooted in a militaristic hierarchy where orders are obeyed at all times no matter what the cost, says leadership specialist John Flanagan of Maritime Professional Training (MPT) in the U.S.
“Crewmembers have the idea that no matter what physical or mental challenges they are facing,” he explains, “they have to get the job done. Whether a crewmember is under intense stress from things going on at home or is immensely fatigued and not getting proper rest, it is still ingrained in our training as mariners that we must stay up and get the job done.”
He cites a quotation from Colonel G.F.R. Henderson’s Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War he was required to memorize while attending a maritime college:
But men and officers must obey, no matter at what cost to their feelings, for obedience to orders, instant and unhesitating, is not only the lifeblood of armies, but the security of states, and the doctrine that, under any conditions whatever, deliberate disobedience can be justified is treason to the Commonwealth.
Flanagan says the quote “is the perfect example of how our industry culture is intertwined with militaristic culture,” leading to many incidents and forcing the industry to adopt a more corporate, “human resources” culture. “This has presented a major culture shock to many Masters and Chief Engineers who are from older generations,” he adds. “They now have to consider how a crewmember is feeling, when before this was unnecessary.”
He believes a more progressive approach, while it may be a culture shock to many, is undoubtedly reducing accidents and creating a safer environment for seafarers.
Technology is forcing another shift in leadership style. In previous generations, once the ship left the dock the Master and Chief Engineer would make decisions based on their own knowledge, skills and experience. Today, technology has given these leaders the ability to find anything on the Internet, but it has also allowed shore management to be involved in their decision-making. This has fed a feeling that their authority is being undermined, especially when some shore managers lack the seagoing experience and leadership training of seafarers.
The newly elected President of The Nautical Institute, Captain David (Duke) Snider, highlighted the change shortly after taking office in June, saying that mentoring is no longer a one-way downward process: “It goes in both directions. Our industry is changing so rapidly now with changes in technology that those of us who are perhaps a little older and have a little bit more sea time under our boots can learn a great deal from the newer, sometimes more tech-savvy mariners coming behind us. So we need to be open in mentoring. We need to share.”
Ulf Steden, Managing Director of Safebridge in Germany, agrees that leaders are no longer expected to be more experienced than their subordinates in all fields. Steden believes that technology evolves so fast that it is impossible for a leader to always stay ahead of his subordinates. They therefore need to evaluate the skills and competencies of their team and adapt accordingly.
“We have a quite simple game in our leadership courses where trainees realize that the most senior person is not always the one in command of a task,” he says. “Rather it is the one with the most experience. But this does not undermine the Captain’s authority. The Captain stays in overall command but shows the strength to delegate.” Involving the team in decision-making usually leads to better results even if the final decision remains with the Captain, he adds.
The Last Glass Ceiling?
The newly granted permission for women to apply for entry into the U.S. Navy SEALs is seen by some as the last, great glass ceiling for women. It comes at a time when three of the world’s top economies may soon be run by women (Merkel and May and potentially Clinton), and when women already head the International Monetary Fund and chair the U.S. Federal Reserve.
Forty years after military service academies opened their doors to women, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy marked a milestone in June of this year when it welcomed a class with a record 38 percent of female cadets. Also this year a woman received the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea for the first time and a woman qualified as an ROV pilot for the first time.
Women now head three of Carnival Corporations 10 brands – Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Fathom – and a woman runs Carnival Australia, representing the seven brands that operate in the region. Christine Duffy, the first female President of Carnival Cruise Line, says women bring a new dimension to the leadership table: “As women, we do tend to have a different way of engaging. Studies have shown we tend to be more empathetic, more in touch with the human side.”
MPT’s Flanagan says women still face special challenges in the maritime industry: “Listening to female mariners I've had in class and those I've worked with, many believe these challenges can be mitigated with strong leadership and a sense of community on board the vessel. It comes down to recognizing that women are seafarers just like men. Overcoming any personal biases or stereotypes is vital in the safe operation of the vessel.”
Captain Dennis Newbanks, Chief Instructor for Leadership at MITAGS-PMI in the U.S., says every leader, whether mature, inexperienced, ethnic or female, faces challenges on a daily basis: “All leaders need to talk the talk, but they also need to walk the walk. Taking on a new role, leaders may need to show their honesty, respect for others, competency, knowledge and strength of character to subordinates. These traits are the tools that will help minorities to overcome gender, ethnic and cultural biases.”
Newbanks believes leadership, simply put, is how people communicate to accomplish their management tasks: “Leadership skills are the tools we use to share our vision. They are how we inspire and motivate our crews.” The challenge is for people to evaluate their leadership skill-set and strengthen their personal weaknesses to be better prepared to appreciate the contributions of individual crewmembers.
“We commonly have considerable cultural and ethnic diversity within our crews,” adds Newbanks. “This diversity can lead to distrust, angst and hostility between individual and groups. In my experience, conflict between diverse crewmembers is most often borne from misunderstanding of intentions or preconceived misconceptions of other cultures.”
Dimitrios Lyrakos, CEO at Filistos Psychosocial Testing and Consulting, has conducted assessments on over 1,000 seafarers, and over 90 percent of them report that conflict and dealing with aggressive crewmembers are the most stressful aspects of their working life, affecting the cooperation and teamwork so important on board.
Penelope Robotis, a psychotherapist at Innovative Maritime EQ Center (IMEQ), sees emotional intelligence as the means to increased team effectiveness. Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, assess and control one’s emotions, and this can be improved by training. Robotis says she has convincingly demonstrated a strong association between emotional intelligence and both job performance and leadership.
IMEQ is launching an emotional intelligence training program especially for seafarers in September. The company has also developed both standardized and non-standardized tests for officers and ratings that assess mental health and personality traits in addition to emotional intelligence.
There is a growing trend among companies to use psychometric testing in recruitment to help find the right person for the job and personality testing to determine how to deal with different people on board ships. “One company is having all employees take a personality test, which would give the results in the form of two colors,” says MPT’s Flanagan. “Each color describes a certain aspect of their personality and is displayed on their hard hat, so when a manager or other crewmember is dealing with them they can tailor how they should approach them.” The system was developed by the psychological consultancy Equilibria.
“When I mention this to people, they usually laugh,” Flanagan adds. “But it is actually quite effective and part of the 100 percent buy-in to the safety culture that these companies have adopted. The safety results speak for themselves.”
A New Glass Ceiling for Everyone?
The debate over whether women can do anything that men can do is perennial. The desire for people to categorize each other is similarly perennial, whether it be because of race, color, religion, gender, sexuality or now personality traits.
As yet, no woman has passed the U.S. Navy SEAL training program, and only time will tell whether personality traits, defined and assigned by psychologists, will become the next leadership venture to boost maritime safety or just become a new glass ceiling for future leaders to smash. – MarEx
Wendy Laursen is MarEx News Editor-Asia Pacific.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.