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Taking the Helm: Unrealistic expectations raise doubts about HELM training


Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

It’s been a few years now since a leadership and management course has been required of watchkeepers, mates, captains and chief engineers, and I’ve started to hear people question how effective this type of training is for personnel in the yachting industry. The questions I hear are valid.

Generally speaking, the hope is that by taking the course, leadership will improve and problems will be reduced or eliminated. And this is a great hope. The thing is, reality has a way of ruining the party. Quite often reality and hope never seem to get onto the same page. The same holds true for leadership training. There are great hopes and expectations set by the people who don’t take the courses but are affected by those who do. If the person who’s taken the training doesn’t change the way they lead, or if they change for a couple of weeks then revert to their prior behaviors, those affected lose faith in the training.

When we think about it, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that HELM courses aren’t meeting their expectations of a huge change. Given that leadership springs from behavior and behavior isn’t very easy to change, the hope that a weeklong course will bring lasting, long-term change is unfounded. Plus, if senior crew members have been forced to participate in the training, the chance of them being open to behavior change is slim. The ability to improve someone’s  overall leadership skills depends on how willing they are to take the information presented to them and turn it into long-lasting behavior change. There has to be a desire on the part of participants to change. Without the desire, change won’t happen. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

When addressing questions about HELM, I ask everyone what their expectations were of people taking the course. The answer is usually something like, “We expected them to become a better leader.” So the expectations of what the course will be able to do may be out of balance with what it is supposed to do.

Leadership training is really a misnomer. In reality, no one can learn leadership in the safety of a classroom. Leadership requires practice and takes place in the heat of the moment. What a training program can do is expose students to foundational information they can incorporate into their daily behavior – topics such as communication, assertiveness and teamwork, to name a few. If the participant does nothing with that information in the weeks following the course, nothing will change.

Another thing to consider is the content actually covered in HELM. The title may include “leadership,” but the bulk of the material is related more to management and human resources. Topics such as performance reviews, crew employment regulations, shipboard training, situational awareness, error chains, standard operating procedures, and situation and risk assessment are more managerial in nature. Only about 15 percent to 20 percent of course content is focused on leadership development. So to expect someone to be a better leader at the end of the week is unrealistic.

Keep in mind that much of the content covered in a weeklong HELM course can be taken as part of a two- to four-year degree program in universities or colleges, with much more time devoted to covering the topics in detail. A weeklong program only has so much time, perhaps an hour or two per topic, which means the material can really only be examined at a superficial level. Again, it’s what the participant does with the material after the course that matters.

Taking a course like the HELM is not like taking a course on navigation or chart work. Skills like electronic navigation or the use of a sextant are learned by following a predetermined sequence of steps to arrive at a single solution, either right or wrong – and if wrong, we redo our steps. The HELM doesn’t prepare students like this. The material covered relies on each person to interpret and use what they have learned in different situations as best they can. There is no single best answer we can take away from the topics covered in the HELM.

The HELM gives students tools to help them see situations differently. That’s it. What happens with those tools in the days, weeks and months after the training is entirely up to the participant.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group ( Comments are welcome below.

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