This month, we revisit the leadership issue. After discussing this topic at our captains luncheon this month, it was clear captains don’t always get performance feedback to see how they are doing and where they can improve. So we offer not only captains’ perspectives on their own leadership abilities, but also crew’s thoughts as well.
One caveat: the captains who took this survey are not necessarily the captains of the crew who took this survey. So while the responses look contradictory in places, it’s unlikely that one side is not being forthcoming. More likely is that these are two separate groups of yachting professionals.
About 150 captains and crew took this survey, so we hope the results will at least give an idea where captains fall in the leadership spectrum.
We began simply by asking captains How would you rate your leadership skills?
Most (70 percent) thought they were above-average leaders, with the remainder labeling themselves as average.
This first, simple question provides perhaps the biggest difference between how captains see themselves and how crew see their captains. When we asked crew How would you rate your captain’s leadership skills?, the largest group said average, about 39 percent. Almost as many — 37 percent — rated their captains below average. Less than a quarter considered their captains above average.
In an effort to figure out how our respondents made that judgment, we asked What do you base that on?
As most captains saw themselves as average or above average leaders, they attributed their abilities to their previous successes with crew.
“I have trained many seamen who are now captains and good captains,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “I figure this is a testament to my leadership skills. We are still in contact years later.”
“An ability to hold a crew together through the good and the bad,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “And feedback from crew members.”
They also credit a current successful program.
“Happy, respectful crew, and happy owners with return on their investment in terms of enjoyment when they come to the yacht, seeing the same faces,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 10 years.
“The work ethic of the crew who report to me,” said a captain in yachting more than 10 years.
“Countless job applicants that seek a tour/season under my command knowing my recommendation is golden toward future employment,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years.
Nearly three quarters of the captains who took our survey this month have management experience in a previous career. Many credit their success in yachting to that experience.
The captains who aren’t so confident in their leadership skills base that one their willingness to learn more.
“Observing my peers,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “I believe I do a better job than many I see, but not nearly as good as others. Also analyzing scenarios on board, and realizing I could have been the change to make an outcome more positive and more efficient.”
“I have areas that I would like to improve in order to be an exceptional leader,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years.
“I’ve seen some great leaders and I would not see myself at that level — yet,” said a captain in yachting more than 10 years.
“People work well for me but I don’t always get the results I want unless I do it myself,” said a captain in yachting less than 10 years.
A few captains noted that they believed they have an innate leadership quality.
“Leadership is a trait that comes naturally,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “It’s not something you learn.”
“There are methods to help a captain be a better manager/leader but the majority of the skill is innate,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 30 years.
Among crew, though, their captains were more likely to be below average in leadership ability. When we asked them What do you base that on?, they acknowledged that it was mostly what they saw (more than half) and in comparison to other captains they had worked for.
“He lacks discipline for the crew so the crew takes advantage of his ‘slackness’,” said a stew in yachting less than three years. “He doesn’t make the decisions; he lets the first officer or chief engineer make them.”
“There is something about how you want to listen to and follow some captains, and others you don’t listen to as closely,” said a chef in yachting more than 10 years. “What is behind that?”
Among their observations was evidence of good behavior and leaders, too.
“He has a solid base of life experience and uses that to help crew relate to their roles in yachting,” said the first officer on a yacht 100-120 feet who considers the captain above average. “He leads by example. If it’s not something he wants his own crew doing, he doesn’t do it … or vice versa.”
“Watching people change their behavior based on the captain’s example,” said the chef on a yacht 120-140 feet.
Those they thought were weak leaders were mostly because of poor communication skills.
“Lack of communication, general inability to deal with situations personally, and complete inability to take responsibility for his errors and lack of judgment,” said the bosun on a yacht larger than 220 feet.
“Was overall fair but occasionally was extremely unprofessional in communicating issues,” said the stew on a yacht 100-120 feet.
It was interesting to note that some crew separated being a captain from being a leader.
“He is a great captain, but not a leader for the crew,” said the chief stew on a yacht 120-140 feet.
“Very mature, responsible seaman, but does not promote good communication aboard,” said the first officer of a yacht 140-160 feet.
“He can, and has been tested throughout his yachting career on how to, drive a boat but he possesses no human interaction skills what-so-ever,” said the engineer of a yacht 180-200 feet.
Considering that yachting generally doesn’t require specific leadership or management training to be hired — and considering most captains saw themselves as above average leaders — we were curious to know Where did you learn your leadership skills?
The most common way was in some prior career but also from previous captains and previous owners. About 40 percent learned a lot from their peers.
About a third chose “other” and noted that their leadership skills were learned from experience, a category we neglected to offer as an option.
The haphazard method of learning leadership on yachts begs the question: Should leadership skills be taught to those studying for a mariner’s license?
Nearly three-quarters of the captains who took this survey said yes; 90 percent of crew said yes.
“The individual’s leadership abilities (or lack thereof) have not, traditionally, been an important factor in selecting a person for the job as master,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 in yachting more than 30 years. “Even today, too few owners and managers see the advantages in appointing a master who will build a strong team and then hold them together, season after season.”
“Captains’ leadership capabilities are paramount,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “Leadership and management training needs to be a structured part of a captain’s career development. It’s a continuous process that has no conclusion.”
“A captain who has all the tickets in the world doesn’t necessarily make a good captain,” said a first officer in yachting less than 10 years. “I’ve encountered ones that have zero communication skills and they hide in their office. They also tended to manage ‘by the book’ when using common sense would have been best.”
“I come from a military background and worked my way up to a fairly high position,” said an engineer in yachting 4-6 years. “Most of the captains I have worked with in yachting (five out of 8 so far) wouldn’t make mid-rank officer, nevermind seagoing captain. I completed several months of command training but these guys don’t do a single day. Even the Merchant Navy do some training in command but yachties get nothing. That, for me, is the biggest disappointment I’ve come across since being in the yachting industry.”
“MPT, IYT and other maritime schools need to offer a variety of courses on management and the ethics of dealing with a multi-national crew,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years.
One captain in yachting more than 30 years noted that the U.S. Coast Guard requires a bridge management course for the 500- and 1600-ton licenses. That course, however, is designed to get a crew through an emergency. According to one syllabus, the three-day course covers voyage planning, bridge and watchkeeping procedures, effective communications, situational awareness, leadership and response to bridge emergencies “and many other subjects.”
“I agree that this is a big problem in our industry,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “The skills of leadership are badly lacking for anyone who is heading up a department, not just for captains.”
“I answered no, but I do believe leadership courses should be available for those seeking to be captains,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years. “At some point, 500- or 1600-ton, it would be a good idea for a ‘leadership endorsement’ to be desired or required for that level of credential.”
As abstract of a topic as leadership is, we sought a way to identify some leadership qualities so we asked captains Some believe that good leaders are good teachers. Do you teach your crew?
The majority — 65 percent — said they teach their crew everything they can, from life lessons to how to varnish.
“The good communicator also listens and responds appropriately,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “One can learn a lot from teaching.”
The next largest group at about 17 percent focus on teaching the elements specific to the job at hand.
Less than 10 percent teach more broad concepts such as how to get along in yachting.
“To be a good teacher you must be willing to listen well to others and learn from them as well,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “A good teacher must always be willing to say ‘I don’t know but I’ll help find the answer.’ Never bluff your way through.”
About 5 percent said it depends on the position, noting they have more to teach the deck crew than the interior crew. And just 3 percent said they do very little actual teaching. Instead, they lead by example, teaching those crew who pay attention.
“If I have to take my time to ‘teach’ a new hire, or explain any regular daily duties to them, they won’t make it to day 2,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 30 years.
When we asked crew Does your captain teach you?, the results were almost exactly the opposite.
Half of crew said their captains did very little actual teaching.
“He does not lead by example,” said the engineer of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting less than three years.
“He yells at us when things don’t go well so we plan and prepare with the goal of keeping him from flipping out,” said the engineer of a yacht 140-160 feet.
The next largest group — 20 percent — noted that deck crew got more instruction than the interior department crew.
Just 16 percent said their captains taught them anything he/she could.
Ten percent said their captains taught them specific skills for their jobs.
And just 4 percent noted their captains taught them broader yachting skills.
Another behavior of leaders is an ability to communicate, so we asked captains How do you communicate with your crew?
The largest group — nearly half — said they conduct regular crew meetings.
“It’s our responsibility as captains to bring up the next generation,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “My experience when I was starting out in the industry was that most captains did not share the ‘magic’.”
“Good, clear, understood communication cannot be emphasized enough,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “Meetings that involve all crew members, so all info falls upon all ears, is very important to happy and efficient crew ops. I have had interior crew ask to leave once we start talking engineering, but they see quickly how the engineer’s maintenance list affects them and vice versa as well. Better when everyone understands how the departments’ day-to-day ops affect one another, as separate as they sometimes seem.”
“A simple way to pass a message is during breakfast,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “After that, you can discuss individually with each crew member. Also do a debrief after maneuvers, charter, passage, etc.”
“A good communicator is also a good listener, and a good leader takes a keen interest in each of their fellow crew members,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years.
The next largest group at 27 percent said they don’t have regular meetings but instead discuss issues as they arise.
“I think it is a good captain’s/dept. head’s job to help their crew succeed by offering great information and training,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet. “Communication is a huge part of that and needs to be clear and concise. It’s easy to not communicate until there’s an issue. By then, there will be yelling and irritation involved. I always have a meeting with the deck crew about what I expect to have at a docking or tight maneuvering. That allows time for them to ask questions and understand what I need from them as we maneuver.”
“I am very hands on to this day,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “I will do wash downs, work in the engine room, sand and varnish. This is a good way of interacting with the crew and firstly they understand that you are proficient at all types of things and secondly it breaks down any potential hierarchy barriers and allows for easy banter and freer speech.”
About a quarter of captains said they talk to each crew member/department head individually at least once a week to touch base.
Just 2 percent give periodic performance reviews.
A few captains do all of the above.
“A) We have regular meetings; b) I talk to each crew member; c) I conduct bi-annual performance reviews; and d) We have impromptu meetings when appropriate,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet.
One would rather do none of it.
“This industry is getting too touchy-feely,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Just shut up and do your job.”
When we asked crew How does your captain communicate with the crew?, we again got a different response.
“Captains who just drive the boat and do not communicate with the crew usually do not command respect,” said a chef in yachting more than 30 years.
Nearly three-quarters of crew said their captains don’t have regular crew meetings but instead discuss issues as they come up.
“Minimal,” said the bosun of a yacht larger than 200 feet. “He hangs notes in the crew mess.”
“Lack of communication is a huge problem,” said the chief stew of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “The captain only communicates once a problem has grown too large to ignore.”
About half of the remainder said their captains talk to crew members individually to touch base.
“For major information sharing he also has meetings where the whole crew can discuss or inquire and that way there are no crossed lines between individuals or departments,” said the mate on a yacht 100-120 feet.
“It seems some crew get information while others learn from the grapevine (that a trip was cancelled, for example),” said the first officer of a yacht 140-160 feet.
“My captain avoids confrontation and uses the chief stew to do the dirty work,” said a stew on a yacht larger than 200 feet in yachting 4-6 years.
Just 8 percent said they have regular meetings to share information.
And 8 percent get periodic performance reviews.
We asked crew to share their thoughts on how their captains teach and lead.
“He doesn’t know how to do either,” said the engineer of a yacht 180-200 feet. “He is scared to challenge anyone from the management company/owner to the junior crew. He relies on senior staff to run the boat. He also allows emotion such as anger to control his decision process and he allows previous ‘bad’ experiences from his previous captains to rule his thought process.”
“In my experience, finding a captain who can truly manage and lead his crew is rare,” said a chief stew in yachting more than 15 years. “I have worked for one or two truly good captains over the years, many mediocre ones, several really awful ones. A huge part of the problem is that the owner does not rate the captain’s performance on his ability to manage crew. Only the captain usually has regular communication with the owner, so if there is a problem, then it’s all about the crew, never about lack of management.”
“There are captains that become captains without ever having to manage people before,” said a chef in yachting less than 10 years. “There should be more to a captain than just sea time. There should be a respect because of knowledge, experience and the ability of knowing how to act in every situation. It has nothing to do with age, necessarily, but definitely life experience. I have met some wise 25 year olds and some irresponsible 50 year olds. A captain should be a leader and not just a license.”
In discussing leadership with captains at the monthly lunch, several pointed out that not all leadership results are up to the captain, so we asked Do you have the tools you need to be a good leader?
Almost all responding captains — 88 percent — said they do have the tools they need, chief among them experience and education.
“I have some but listening and patience are the most difficult aspects of both leading and following,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years.
Other captains noted that the tools most influential in their success came from others.
“A boss who understands the value of human resources,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years.
“A well-equipped vessel, crew open to my techniques, owner’s support,” said a captain in yachting more than 15 years.
“The faith and confidence of the owner, including good sponsorship from the owner (ie: adequate budget, leeway to make the best decisions),” said another captain in yachting more than 15 years.
“Support and trust from the owner to pick and train my crew to do things the way I feel fit,” said a captain in yachting less than 10 years.
“Good crew,” said a captain of more than 15 years.
Other tools include common sense, mutual respect for crew, patience, a willingness to do all jobs, and an ability to listen.
“I listen to individuals … their goals and aspirations as well as their concerns and worries,” said a captain of more than 10 years. “My role is to lead from the front, not asking others to do what I can’t.”
“Patience, attentiveness, willingness to step up and do the right (or the most right) thing, even when it may not be the most popular at the time,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years. “I believe you must lead by example, a true leader cannot be a hypocrite.”
“Patience, a cool head, and the ability to criticize myself if I mess up or make a mistake,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years.
“The tools are available for the taking and learning by everyone,” said a captain in yachting more than 15 years. “It is a matter of opening up one’s mind and ears, as well as seeking out advice from established and successful leaders (following certain people on LinkedIn, for example).”
Most of those who acknowledged that they don’t have the tools attribute that to the budget or program of the vessel. One took a more philosophical approach.
“Leadership is a state of mind, a perceived power that compels others to follow, remain loyal, and serve even under adverse conditions,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Tools? There are no tools involved.”
We wanted to look more closely at this idea that captains might not have what they need to be successful, so we asked What do you think is the biggest barrier to yacht captains’ ability to lead their crew more successfully?
More than half of captains noted that their own abilities (or lack of training in those abilities) is the biggest barrier to being a better captain.
“Sometimes our own insecurities or shortcomings or inability to admit being wrong or not actually knowing how to do something creates a roadblock to success,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “Be honest, ask your own questions. You are still the leader.”
“Own ability or lack of training coupled with a lack of interest in changing their present management style (or lack thereof); in other words, denial,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Recognizing the problem is the first step in solving it.”
“Not enough captains do a proper apprenticeship these days, i.e. they don’t have the depth of experience to run or understand crew,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Most young captains let the first officer run the boat and you end up with a case of the blind leading the blind.”
“Way too many captains never look in the mirror,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “They blame their owner, their crew, their contractors and can never figure out why things are always so difficult.”
The next largest group, almost a quarter of respondents, opted for “other” and noted that it was experience that most poor captains lacked.
“Having tickets but not the experience and time on the water,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 in yachting more than 30 years. “Every guy should learn how to sail and also learn to drive single-screw boats with no thrusters in wind and tidal situations.”
“A lack of a desire to lead, and rather a desire to be the boss,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years. “They are not the same.”
About 14 percent noted that their leadership ability was hindered by the crew’s willingness to follow.
“Lack of respect from the crew as a result of an ego and/or insecurity issue,” said a captain in yachting more than five years.
A few captains blamed the owner or management company for poor leadership onboard.
“I know how to captain a successful yacht and have done so numerous times,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “But now on a new boat, the management company does not allow me to hire or fire crew. How can anyone argue that absentee management works in the long run? You do not open a fancy restaurant in Paris and have the person managing the restaurant living in New York. Please, let’s stop the madness with poor decisions based on power control rather than what makes sense.”
We asked crew this same question and got similar responses.
More than half said it was captains’ own abilities or lack thereof that hindered success onboard.
But 20 percent said it was crew’s unwillingness to follow.
The third most common response was “other,” including ego and attitude
“Not realizing the crew wants to learn and get direction,” said a first officer in yachting more than 20 years. “And taking no action after listening to crew.”
“While it may be a combination of all of the above, the biggest challenge is those who do not look at this as a career and do not take their behavior, personally or professionally, seriously,” said a chef in yachting less than 10 years.
Again, few blamed the owner or management company for onboard leadership issues.
Read Triton reader’s comment in Write to be Heard, “Leadership survey points to need.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. We conduct our monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t been invited to take our surveys and would like to be, e-mail email@example.com to be added.