Wield your power wisely or risk crew turnover

Apr 18, 2016 by Paul Ferdais

This month, let’s consider the idea of leadership power. Power isn’t something that gets discussed very often, even though it’s all around us in every aspect of our lives.

Before we can discuss power, let’s understand what it is.

The definition I rely on is from political scientist Robert Dahl: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” This definition describes power as a tool to be used over others.

Learning to handle and use power takes practice. If we ignore power as a concept and wield it indiscriminately, it can lead to high crew turnover and low levels of loyalty. We all have encountered leaders who have been given power and have no understanding of what to do with it. Does this sound familiar?  “Do what I’m telling you because I say so!” or “When I want your opinion I’ll give it to you.”

Leaders who handle their power badly, can quickly lose respect and confidence from their crew, and ultimately can lose their job.

With the speed of technology today, bad behavior can be reported via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram faster than ever before.

Traditionally, people in positions of power and authority have felt justified exercising domination over others so they’d fall into line. Think of politicians, CEOs, religious and military leaders, the list goes on. It’s this positional power that often allows terrible leaders an almost free rein to do what they want with impunity.  

Consider the marine world in the 1700s to the mid 1980s. The captain, through their power, had almost complete control over life and death of the people on the vessel. Captains were the final law, no matter how badly they behaved.

Today, this entrenched tradition doesn’t exist in the same way. In most cases, people expect to be treated fairly and have their opinions valued and considered. Captains are now held accountable for everything related to the ship, including crew behavior, which is influenced by changes in social norms, values and societal expectations.

When crew members misbehave or break the law, such as bringing drugs onboard the vessel or spilling fuel into the ocean when bunkering, captains along with others involved are held liable.  The captain isn’t above or beyond the reach of outside influence or authority.

Leaders, regardless of their organization or industry, need to recognize that the power they hold is not nearly as strong as it once was. Those who want to be truly successful should remember that they are held to a higher standard today than at any other time in history.

This requires us to master the foundational characteristics of leadership so we don’t have to rely solely on power and authority in our roles. These characteristics include effective communication, conflict resolution, motivation and engagement, and teamwork skills among others.

When we step back and consider leadership without including the concept of power, we sometimes fall into the trap of romanticizing it.

What I mean is that the conversation focuses on grand, lofty ideas associated with leadership, like trust, integrity, honesty and legacy. These ideas might make us feel good, but they are often not seen in action in the majority of leaders we interact with or hear about. Discussions about leadership generally focus on these ideas because they provide us with a warm feeling and hope for the future, but may not reflect reality.

When we avoid discussing the concepts of power, authority, control and status, it leaves us with only half of the equation for leadership. No matter how you look at it, power is part of leadership and is necessary to get things done. How you wield it is up to you. That’s why it shouldn’t be ignored when discussing leadership.

Because power in all its forms: rules, regulations, laws etc… are around us all the time, crew members, employees, all of us, hope our leaders can and will rise above their personal challenges with power and live up to the grand ideas of leadership.

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