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Taking the Helm: Positional power, personality not what leadership is built on

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Leaders who use fear or some form of implied threat toward their crew members will receive an altogether different quality of work and commitment than a leader who behaves with compassion and generosity. This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

What’s surprising is that in 2017 some leaders still rely on the use of fear or threat to get people to do their work. Usually this is because they don’t know any better and the power of their position has gone to their head. Let’s face it, a lot of people in senior positions were good at a lower level job and were promoted into leadership because of it. Success as a leader, however, requires knowledge and experience that they may not have gained in the lower level position.

If they don’t have good foundational leadership skills, or don’t know what they don’t know, they can become overwhelmed with the responsibilities of the more senior position. It’s too late to start preparing for the job when they already have the job.

When they don’t know any better, new leaders often rely on the power that comes with their position to lead and get things done. But when they need to work closely with others who aren’t in their specific department or area of work, they run into difficulties relying on the power that comes from their position because that doesn’t influence someone of equal authority.

When they can’t use their positional power to get things done, a common strategy is to rely on personality to develop influence with others of similar rank. Challenges can arise from this strategy. If a chief engineer and chief mate don’t like one another because of a personality clash, this critical relationship won’t work – and on vessels, critical relationships of this kind have to work. Senior positions on a boat inevitably entail a high degree of interdependence. Two senior-level crew members can’t afford to not “like” each other.

Liking someone else is based on a number of factors, such as how similar the other person is to us, how attractive we think the other person is, how complimentary the other person is toward us, how much cooperation we have between us, and other positive things – the person listens to the same music as us, or the other person usually brings us good news, and so on.

Whether or not we are liked by someone determines how willing they are to help us out and, in turn, how much influence we will have with that person. The influence we may or may not have with someone is directly related to how we make them feel. People may not remember exactly what we say or what we do, but they will remember exactly how we make them feel. Someone will generally have a reason why they don’t like us, and it will more often than not have to do with how we made them feel at some point.

This holds true of leaders who use threat and fear as the basis for their leadership. Crew members may not remember the specifics, but they will remember how they felt in a situation and will use that feeling for their future decisions about the leader.

Something that often happens as we move up the levels of the hierarchy is that we lose the choice to always be authentic, or genuine, in our actions. The need for this is obvious, once you think about it. Doing things we don’t want to do is sometimes part of our role. Sometimes we have to behave in ways that we don’t want to – like setting aside our dislike of someone – for the greater good of the vessel. Effective leaders control their ego and emotions for the success of the team and the vessel.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments are welcome below.

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