Technical skills don’t automatically make you a leader

May 20, 2016 by Paul Ferdais

The higher a leader goes in an organization, commonly their technical skills are called upon less and less, while their interpersonal skills become more important. For example, a captain doesn’t necessarily do all or even any of the chart corrections, they may have people who help them do this task. The same with a chief engineer who delegates work to other members on his team. These leaders need to be able to communicate clearly and interact effectively to get the most out of the people helping them. Because the change in focus goes from hard skills to more soft skills, successful leaders recognize that technical skills alone do not translate into being a good leader.

Leadership workshop participants often ask me what the most important thing is for them to learn. My answer is – pay attention to how you behave with others. It’s not always about learning something new, but rather to change or stop something in their behavior that may impact others negatively.

For leaders who genuinely want to excel in their roles, personal and professional development is important. And a good place to start is with a coach. A leader, no matter their skill level, can benefit from outside input.

A good coach will lay out their process and outcomes. This will include feedback from direct reports about the leader’s behavior, which can help identify areas in need of improvement. For example, perhaps the first officer doesn’t seem like she’s listening when crew speak, but doesn’t realize it, so the crew feel that they aren’t being heard. By having a coach meet with the crew to assess their perceptions, issues can be identified.

Based on the feedback received about the leader’s behavior, a coach can now pinpoint what the actual problem is, not what the leader thinks the problem is. This is critical to understand. It’s what a leader doesn’t know that gets them into trouble. A coach can help identify areas for improvement that may not even occur to the leader.

The next step requires that the leader accept the feedback in the spirit it’s given. If they become defensive, or make excuses and ignore what the coach is offering, this may indicate that the leader isn’t really interested in progressing. Working with a coach is only beneficial if the leader is enthusiastic and willing to participate. Otherwise, everyone involved will just be wasting their time.

Yes, you may get feedback that you’d rather not hear, but no one is perfect, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people may have unpleasant things to say. A coach can help a leader filter the feedback to use it as a powerful tool for transformation.

As always, it’s important to set up expectations with a coach right at the start. A leader should identify what he or she hopes to get out of the sessions. All expectations must be realistic, so a leader that hopes to be perfect after working with a coach will never achieve that result. Make sure you clearly lay out the top two or three realistic expectations. Coaching isn’t a quick fix. Coaching helps leaders learn to use new tools and strategies when situations become challenging.

The benefits for leaders who receive coaching include:

  • Identifying the leader’s strengths and development needs.
  • Putting focus on current strengths to improve performance.
  • Adopting and/or reinforcing leadership competencies crucial to the organization’s success.
  • Creating positive and sustainable behavior changes.
  • Developing leadership skills and practices, including coaching skills of their own.
  • Designing an action-oriented plan for further career development.

Because good coaches can offer many benefits and help develop insight into unexamined behaviors, consider coaching as an avenue to improve your leadership skills.


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