I am happy that the reality TV show “Below Deck” has created a buzz. Even the man next to me on the plane had seen it. He was the captain of a commercial ship, and had spent several seasons on sailboats, including one season as captain on a private yacht.
While he acknowledged that the show was a bit overdone, he could relate to the drama onboard. His biggest challenge as a yacht captain was dealing with the continual crises onboard. That was the biggest reason he returned to commercial ships. It is also the biggest reason owners leave yachting.
On the show, the position of leadership is a challenge for Chief Stew Adrienne. I remember being in those shoes myself. In my first season as chief stew, I managed two stews. On my previous boats there had only been two of us, so duties were evenly divided. I was unaccustomed to managing others.
As you can guess, I was constantly trying to be likeable and not hurt anyone’s feelings. Before long, I had adopted the role of confidant and everyone brought their problems to me. Then I was struggling with integrity.
I was not prepared for the pervasiveness of gossip and complaining among the crew. There was a lack of honor and integrity within the crew and, I was soon to discover, in myself. I can’t tell you how many times I have been guilty of allowing myself to be pulled into a conversation about another co-worker, an owner, or a guest by someone on my team, and even by my boss. I always feel sick about it afterward.
I do not know a single chief stew who hasn’t had their integrity tested, mostly concerning gossip and the betrayal of others that results from it. Integrity is one of those nice words — like love, trust and ethics — that is easy to feel and demonstrate, as long as things are going well.
However, in a challenging situation, integrity is not so easy to hold onto.
The day-to-day behavior of some must seem childish when observed from the outside. The challenges that come up in yachting that lead to so much gossip and the resulting lack of integrity may seem trivial, but it is the little irritating parts of everyday behavior that can become outrageous if not kept under control.
By going along with the daily injustices and dishonesties, managers engage in unethical behavior. It will eat away at your conscience and take its toll on your self-respect. As a leader, whether you like it or not, you must set the tone for your team.
Unless you have lived it, it is difficult to understand the pressure that can build up as yacht crew work longer and longer hours. Some collapse under the stress, and before long cooperation and civility get thrown out the porthole.
For leaders, it’s the little daily choices you make in responding to situations that demonstrate your integrity, more so than any big dilemmas you may face.
If you lack confidence in your authority, it may seem easier to agree with another person to keep the peace, or to simply let a comment slide and walk away from the situation. By doing so, however, you are implying that you agree with the comment.
The hardest choice is to have the courage and integrity to say you are uncomfortable in this situation. Gossip between and about co-workers is disrespectful. Stop gossip in its tracks by saying that you believe it is counterproductive to talk about people that way.
If you do this even once or twice, you give a strong message that will impact those around you, and maybe even give them the courage to follow suit.
Living with integrity means making the right choices, not the easy choices. It means putting the common good before everything else and staying focused on respect, honesty, trust, and fairness, especially when, like us, you know what it’s really like to live Below Deck.
Alene Keenan has been a megayacht stew for more than 20 years. She teaches at MPT in Ft. Lauderdale and offers interior crew training through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions (www.yachtstewsolutions.com). Download her book, The Yacht Service Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht, on her site oramazon.com. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.