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Taking the Helm: Leaders must be part of the team

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Leadership comes from the everyday, normal behavior we display. It’s not a technique or a style we turn on or off at a particular moment. And if we treat our people poorly, don’t be surprised when they do everything in their power to treat us poorly in return and refuse to follow, no matter the title we hold.

I’m working with a fellow, we’ll call him John, who presumes he’s too good to do menial jobs like grab a line or hold a fender. For example, John was asked to help do something on deck and responded, “I’m officer material, not deckhand material.” He refused to help out, even though he was only a few steps away from where he could lend a hand. As can be imagined, things have gone downhill for John in his leadership capacity.

Let’s unpack this attitude and see how it can be improved for the future.

First, leaders are not an island unto themselves – they are part of their team, whether we want to admit it or not. Therefore, all the expectations of being a team member exist in addition to the specific duties we may have as a captain, first mate or chief stew. So, yes, if captains can lend a hand in a given moment, they should.

The only difference between captains and their deckhands or housekeepers is the responsibilities each has. To say out loud “I’m too good to do what you’ve asked” implies that we’re somehow above or are better than the people around us.

Here’s the secret: Real leaders do it all. They clean toilets if they have to, they crawl into a bilge and run a vacuum to clean up a spill, or they tend bar when necessary. Genuine leaders do what needs to be done. Period. Greater respect from team members results from us demonstrating a willingness to do what needs to be done. If team members know their team leader can be relied on to help out, the team as a whole will be stronger and more efficient.

Second, it takes conscious effort and self-awareness to be a leader. When we behave badly in the eyes of our teammates, we can end up with trouble. Remember that crew members watch everything we do and put our behavior under a microscope. What we might say or do as a joke or in a flippant way can be misconstrued. Team members often hold leaders to a higher standard, even if they don’t say so. Work to meet this unspoken expectation.

What we say and do can bring out the best in others or drive them away. In John’s case, because he sincerely meant what he said about being officer material, his deckhand and engineer are now unwilling to help him out. They’ve become actively difficult for John to work with.

John hasn’t fully realized cooperation is a two-way street and isn’t something that can be commanded or forced. And when we do try to force cooperation, all we’ll get is the minimum amount of effort. Indeed, active resistance may be forthcoming too, as can be seen in the actions from the deckhand and engineer. Followers will find a way to get back at us if we’re not good leaders.

And third, in my experience the mindset of “I’m officer material, not deckhand material” is most common in someone who’s new to a leadership role and doesn’t realize the scope of their impact, or in someone who’s focused on the acquisition of power. If someone’s new and not completely confident in their role, they may say or do foolish things without fully recognizing the impact they have. This can be forgiven and changed if the leader is made aware of what they’re doing.

In John’s case, it seems to be a bit of both of the above – being new to a leadership role and fumbling his way forward, as well as a little drunk on the power he thinks he has. This combination is an insidious problem because his actions will continue to push people away.

Be a leader who helps out no matter the task, and build bridges by including yourself in the team instead of driving team members away by being self-centered or power hungry.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and now an officer in the Canadian Coast Guard. Comments are welcome below.

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