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Can leadership skills be learned

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The recent survey in The Triton on leadership was interesting [Triton survey, January issue]. It revealed some numbers that I believe got our attention and hopefully generated some conversation on leadership

I started thinking about whether leadership can be learned or if it is a certain type or genetic code that creates great leaders. I believe it can be learned or maybe more accurately, developed.

If you look at some of the leaders many consider great just in American history — Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, King — we see in retrospect what appear to be natural leaders who could inspire the masses. A closer look at all their paths reveals development. They all had major setbacks. They all struggled at times, and situations did not go well. Their leadership skills were questioned, but they all grew to legendary stature because they were all learners with a desire to be better. They practiced at the art of leadership.

So for everyone in leadership positions in the yachting industry, ask yourself: Am I working on my leadership skills? Do I acknowledge that I could and should improve?

It takes a strong and secure individual to honestly admit to areas that need to be improved and then the willingness to practice to improve them. This pertains to those new to leadership positions and to veteran leaders as well.

For those who find themselves in leadership positions for the first time or stepping up to a position of greater responsibility, to help deal with possible overwhelm, begin by being a learner. You can learn from both the good leaders you’ve observed and the not so good. There are lessons in both experiences.

Remind yourself that you are developing your own leadership model. You are in the process of practicing the art of leadership. You don’t want to try to mimic someone else’s style. Rather, take note of the methods and habits of a good leader whom you admire and see if you can incorporate them into your developing leadership style.

There might be the temptation to “fake it till you make it” but I would be careful with that one. I strongly believe that in the long run you will be way better off making some mistakes and learning along the way.

For you veterans of leadership, let me offer this friendly reminder: Don’t get too comfortable. Being too comfortable does not lend itself to continued growth and development. Let’s face it, sometimes growth and development can feel a little uncomfortable but we are at our best when we have a little edge to us. Comfort zones are a nice place to visit but you don’t want to live there.

Elvis was the most dynamic performer in the world when he had an edge; then he got comfortable. Marlon Brando was a powerhouse of an actor, and then he got comfortable.

Don’t become like Elvis or Brando. Keep practicing the art of leadership.

For both new and veteran leaders, here is a concept to put into practice that could be valuable. We know leadership is dealing with people. You have a crew and they are not machines; they are people. I found this human-element approach explained very well in a book called Touchpoints by Douglas Conant and Mette Norgaard.

In it they describe how every interaction is an opportunity to show and develop leadership. What could be considered interruptions or things you just think you don’t have time for can be precisely where great gems of information and insight are found. The art of talking to and — maybe more importantly — listening to the folks who make up your team is essential. Get to know them. Get to know what makes them tick and what motivates them. Learn about their lives and make them feel that they have a voice and are valued.

This doesn’t mean praise everyone, patting them on no matter how they perform. Leadership is also letting people know when they can do better. It shows that you want them to succeed.

There are plenty of books out there on leadership. Certainly some tips and insights can be gained from books but what is better, I believe, is leadership training specific to yachting that is now available.

But above all, beyond books and training, one must have the desire to improve as a leader. Nothing much happens without that.

Rob Gannon is a 25-year licensed captain and certified life and wellness coach (www.yachtcrewcoach.com). Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.a

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