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Taking the Helm: Effective leadership methods must match skill level of crew

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Over the past few weeks I’ve asked various crew members what they want to know about leadership. For many, it involved knowing what to do with crew members at different times in the working relationship. In other words, situational leadership.

In a nutshell, situational leadership describes how to modify behavior with coworkers of various skill levels. For example, captains can be controlling and task-focused with new deckhands, who need to learn the skills of their job. But if captains remain controlling with seasoned crew members, they may have difficulties. Situational leadership describes how those captain need to modify how they interact with different crew at different skill levels.

Let’s explore the four stages of interactive behavior a leader in any position – be it bosun, 2nd engineer or experienced 3rd stew – should understand when working with people of various skill levels.

Stage 1: Directing

At this first stage, crew members are new to their role and don’t know how to do things on a new boat yet. Leaders in this situation must knowingly be hands-on and take charge to train and teach. Decisions are made by those in charge and communication is one-way, a “do it this way” arrangement. At this stage there’s a lot of demonstrating and telling how to do things – the teaching component.

The leader must be less focused on developing a relationship, since time spent together is all about developing the skills necessary for the role. A working relationship will develop, but isn’t the focus at this point. If the leader at this stage tries to focus more on building a working relationship than developing hard skills, the crew member won’t be prepared to take on the challenges of the role.

Stage 2: Coaching

At this stage, new crew members have begun to catch onto the way things work on the job and can be trusted to do a few things. They’re still at the learning stage, yet have learned the basics. They can demonstrate the rudimentary parts of their job back to their instructor, be it bosun, chief stew or chief engineer.

Decisions remain the leader’s prerogative, but communication is much more two-way. Crew will still need directing because they’re still relatively inexperienced, but they also need support and praise, as well as involvement in decision making to develop commitment. In the coaching stage, the leader spends time listening, advising and helping the follower gain necessary skills in order to do the task on their own next time.

Stage 3: Supporting

The leader’s behavior at this stage is most appropriate when the crew members have mostly learned the skills of the job. This is where the concepts of motivation and people development come in. The crew member is now skilled in performance of the job, yet needs the leader to help with the mental aspects: internal motivation, purpose, hope and the like. Supportive leadership involves listening, giving praise and making followers feel good when they show the necessary commitments for success.

Stage 4: Delegating

This final stage of situational leadership is based on crew members being fully skilled and knowledgeable in their role and trusted to do all aspects of their job. The leader has clearly laid out all expectations and is confident the crew member can succeed. It’s now time to let the crew go out on their own and do the job. There’s a high amount of trust crew will succeed, and they now require little to no supervision or support.

Delegating still keeps the leader involved in the decisions and problem-solving, but execution is mostly in the hands of the crew. Recognition of a job well done is always encouraged.

Leaders may jump to the stage of delegating too soon. If that happens,  chances are fairly high the crew will fail since they haven’t been given all the tools to succeed.

Keep these stages in mind when working with crew of different skill levels and you’ll find yourself and others more successful in their role.

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

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