The Triton


Taking the Helm: Changing bad habits hardest part of progress


Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

A deckhand I work with would like to be a captain one day. He has all the sea time necessary for the license and has taken most of the classes, yet he knows he isn’t ready for the role. Why? Controlling behavior. He’s been told about it by others, and sees it in himself, and he knows he needs to get over it before he can succeed as a captain.
For example, when he sees someone who isn’t moving fast enough handling lines or isn’t doing deck work the way he does it, he tends to push the person aside, step in and do the task himself.

He knows he needs to improve his communication. He knows he needs to let the other person do the work. He knows he needs to explain his expectations with new people. These are all things he knows. So what is holding him back? He has been frustrated time and again trying to change because in the moment, he reverts to ingrained habits of behavior.

Changing habitual behavior is one of the most difficult things a person can try. How many New Year resolutions fail? How many dieters return to a former weight? The commitment and hope may be there, but the reality is we often sabotage ourselves. We procrastinate, or we’re a know-it-all, or in a hurry, or a control freak, or in an environment that doesn’t allow for new behaviors. It’s a lot of work to bring about change in any arena, leadership included.

Here’s something to consider: Nothing about leadership is new. A few thousand years ago, the Greeks and Romans thought deeply about leadership and came to the same conclusion as modern man: Leadership is behaving in a way that encourages others to follow. People follow what they see others do. Therefore, a leader needs to be seen out front, leading the charge and enacting the plan. Leadership isn’t about sitting in the back office trying to direct the actions of co-workers.

Leadership training usually involves  a seminar listening to someone lecture on what we should or shouldn’t do. During the presentation we learn all the latest buzzwords and ideas of the day regarding leadership. There might be a few good ideas to implement, but long-term change doesn’t come from sitting in a classroom. Those who hope to be better leaders after a seminar or weeklong course are likely to find their lofty expectations not in line with reality. I say this because learning about leadership in the safety of a classroom is ineffective. Leadership is practice, not theory.

The only real way to become a better leader is to change obstructive behaviors, and that takes time and effort. The strategy our deckhand is now using to bring about lasting change involves the following steps.

  • Ask for feedback. Or as Marshall Goldsmith calls it, “feedforward.” We can’t change the past, so instead of dwelling on the past, ask for suggestions on how to be better in the future. Ask what can be done differently.
  • Accept feedback. This is a challenge, especially for the ego. No one likes to hear negative things about themselves. We become defensive and try to justify. At this point, simply accept the comments and thank the person for their help.
  • Decide what to work on. There will be more than one thing we could become better at. At this point, choose the most important behavior to change. After we choose, inform those around us of what we’re doing and ask for help.
  • Ask for followup feedback. Routinely ask for followup input about how we’re doing on changing the specific behavior. If the people around us still see us exhibiting the negative behavior, for example being controlling, encourage them to speak up. Ask them to point out the behavior in the moment for maximum effect. We aren’t necessarily the best judge of our own actions, since we tend to see ourselves in the best possible light. To become a better leader, seek feedback, recognize behaviors that are getting in the way and work on changing them.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (, and a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.

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