Building relationships through humanity

Feb 15, 2016 by Paul Ferdais

A common misconception about leadership is that followers will simply do what they’re told, no matter what. I’m guilty of this myself. I don’t know why, but when I became the first officer on my first boat, I thought I had all the answers. The position went to my head. I simply expected my deck crew to do what I told them to do just because I said so.

It wasn’t until later that I understood I needed to behave as a person with faults of my own, not as someone who was superior just because of my title. I realized I needed to lead with humanity and not treat my crew as robots to do my bidding.

What I mean by humanity is being a person who is considerate of others, and who treats others the way they want to be treated. Leading with humanity makes all the difference to a leader’s success. It reminds us that people are at the heart of leadership. Communication, trust and respect can only happen when we truly see each other as human beings and not just cogs in a machine.

When we acknowledge we all have imperfections, it gives us the opportunity to learn and grow to be better in our role as a leader and as a person. Understanding that no one is perfect allows us to help others as well as ourselves reach our true potential. Recognizing what it is to be human empowers us to behave with humanity toward others.  

Leading with humanity allows us to see past our own needs and wants, and enables us to focus on the people around us. It encourages selflessness by including others in our world view and taking them into consideration. When we do this, we demonstrate compassion and empathy.

It’s this compassion and empathy that allows us to build relationships with those we lead. And it’s these relationships that determine whether we are successful as a leader.

Building relationships means being connected to the crew. I’ve encountered many leaders who want to distance themselves from their people. They feel they have to put up barriers because of their position. In some cases, leaders feel they won’t be taken seriously if their crew sees them as imperfect. Many times this stems from a leader’s lack of self-confidence or fear of losing their position.

The reality is the exact opposite. It may sound counterintuitive, but people are more willing to follow someone who displays humanity and vulnerability.

A chief engineer or chief stew who goes out to dinner with the crew and quietly leaves before the after party gets going shows they are part of the team while still maintaining boundaries. Conversely, the chief mate who barks orders and spends all of his time locked away in the wheelhouse separates himself from his team, all in the name of professionalism. This behavior does nothing to develop the relationships a loyal crew requires.

Strong relationships with followers is the core of successful leadership because of the connections that get created. It’s the connections that bring people together.

Leaders who demonstrate the following characteristics will display humanity to their crew.

  1. Actively listen. Show that you actually care about what the other person says by listening attentively.
  2. Get involved. Participate with the crew, and lead from the front.  
  3. Collaborate to solve problems. Take other people and their ideas into consideration to solve problems and reach goals.
  4. Make principle-based decisions. Make decisions based on fairness, openness and respect.  
  5. Display trustworthiness. Extend trust before you expect trust.
  6. Respond, don’t simply react. Integrate the above ideas into the way you behave, which will determine whether people will follow.

When we behave with caring and respect for others, consider other perspectives, and be the first to accept responsibility for the results of our actions, we have the foundation to develop powerful, long-lasting relationships with those we are tasked with leading.

The more humanity leaders demonstrate, the more approachable they become. When crew trust that their interests will be taken into account, deeper relationships develop. And crew who feel connected to their leader will be more willing to stick around when the going gets tough.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group. Contact him through