Managing humans onboard is a start to better leadership

Mar 27, 2014 by Alene Keenan

It has been said that the yachting industry lacks professionalism on some levels and that developmentally, we are still in our infancy. One of the problem areas for growth has always been the lack of effective leadership and management standards.

Regulations are evolving that are designed to address this situation. The MCA requirement for HELM classes that went into effect Jan. 1 is one example. There are two levels of the HELM (Human Elements of Leadership and Management). For the past two weeks I have been auditing them at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale.

Let me explain the two levels of HELM. One is called the Operational Level, and the other is the Management Level. The three-day operational level course is designed to meet the mandatory requirements for training in the human element, leadership and management at the operational level. It provides students with awareness and understanding of the key human factors influencing effective resource management. This level applies to candidates for Officer Of the Watch (OOW) in the deck department and Y4 engineers.

Some of the topics covered include circumstance and risk assessment, situational awareness, cultural awareness, team building, workload management, shipboard training, and the importance of clear communication in leadership and management.

The five-day management level course is required for officers at the management level who are following an approved education and training program leading to MCA certification as chief mate or master on ships of 500 gross tonnage or more; second engineer officer or chief engineer officer on ships powered by main propulsion machinery of 750 kw propulsion power or more; and Y2 and Y1 engineering candidates.

In this course students learn to control the operation of the ship and care for persons on board at the management level through the use of effective leadership and managerial skills. It expands on the key human factors that influence effective human resource management.

In order to ensure best practices are communicated and applied, management level personnel must understand the factors that impact situational awareness. Communication must be clearly and explicitly given and received. The decision making process should take into account relevant factors that will impact the outcome and the safety and security of the ship.

The HELM courses aren’t required for interior. However, the PYA recommends the management level course for department heads (such as chief stews) who would like a higher level of certification and more leadership and management training.

Understanding the human element is critical to surviving in yachting. When we talk about leadership, we often think of captains, but each position has a role to play in leadership. Chief stews are obvious leaders but so are second and third stews. By definition, a steward is “one who performs the task of watching over that which is placed in their trust by the one who owns it, or for those who will benefit by it.” Stews perform a service for others. It is not about ownership or control. It is not a management style or technique. It is an attitude that describes who the leader is.

Leadership is a state of being, a way of looking at the world. In reality, true leadership is and has always been a selfless action. It involves taking your ego and yourself out of the picture and considering the needs of others. It is a way of thinking that takes other people into account even when your own needs are pressing. It asks what is right or best in the wider interest.

Leadership is an issue that affects all of us. Not only are we impacted by it, but we are all called upon to exercise it at many levels. Whether it is to be involved in keeping the crew mess area clean and tidy, organizing a shopping list, or designing a table setting, a picnic at the beach, or an entertainment event for guests, everyone has a service leadership role to play onboard a yacht.

We are each put into many different leadership roles again and again, throughout our careers. We are called upon to serve as protectors of what is right and good, and to contribute value to those in our environment. Service leadership is not about leaning down to raise someone up; it is about providing a constant, reliable underlying support of respect and trust.

There is some debate as to whether people are born with special skills, or if leadership can be taught. I believe that, on a basic level, people are either internally or externally motivated; however, they can be encouraged to grow. People can develop the motivation to go outside their comfort zones. I do think that with best practices and good examples, leadership can be an learned.

In the HELM courses that I audited, there were different prevailing schools of thought within two levels of maturity. At the operational level course, it was clear that these future captains and chief engineers were aware of leadership and communication weaknesses of many of the captains they had worked with. My impression was that some of them will be inspired to bring about change when they come into management positions themselves. Until then, they must rely on the examples set by those currently in charge.

Ideally, they will be mentored and shaped along the way. In my opinion, the most important quality in a mentor is selflessness. Putting the needs of others before your own ego is the mark of a true leader and a true mentor. A good mentor sets an ethical professional example with their own best practices in managerial behavior. The best mentors teach by example, listen to and absorb what is being said, and then point us in the right direction to help us learn to create our own solutions to problems.

The MCA-required HELM classes may not offer the final answers to yachting’s managerial dilemma, but at least they steer us in the right direction.


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 ( Download her book, The Yacht Service Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht, on her site or Comments on this column are welcome at


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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