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Taking the Helm: Leadership crumbles without daily effort

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

The idea that leadership is a one-time grandiose act instead of a repeated daily behavior is often the reason leaders fail and fall from grace. They make a series of small mistakes or take advantage of their position and their leadership unravels, no matter what they’ve done in the past.

Be mindful of the seemingly small acts that make you a leader in the eyes of your coworkers and crew mates.

Feedback is key

Direct, honest feedback – even if it’s criticism – is the best way to guide your team members in the right direction. Every department head must know exactly what’s expected of them and their team. Those expectations then cascade down to the team members, so they know what they need to achieve.

No one reads minds. If something needs to be said, say it. If team members don’t know every part of their role, no matter how much you’ve communicated  about their individual performances, they’ll flounder when it comes to making decisions and taking actions.

Once those basic expectations are established, then deadlines, performance reviews and work processes can easily be put into place and overall performance improves. Remember to give individual praise or feedback daily so each person knows you’re paying attention to them.

Know your team

Over time, a crew on a boat becomes a family. Everyone is unique in what drives them. Leaders need to know their followers as individuals, not just bodies filling a role. If a first officer is aloof to her teammates, for example, the members of the team will reciprocate that attitude, and an easy back-and-forth in the relationship cannot grow.

Connecting with teammates creates group motivation and engagement, since people naturally want to help those whom they know and like. Team bonding occurs when we know one another as flesh-and-blood people. We begin to do what we need to for the people on the team, and not because it’s listed in a contract for employment. We will not go the extra mile, however, for someone who is cold and distant, and who only talks to us to issue orders.

On a daily basis really get to know your people — who they are, what they’re interested in and what their talents are. Knowing what you’re supposed to do is important, but equally so is knowing your people. If you care about and take care of your people, they will take care of you.

Allow people to fail

Ridiculing or shaming those who make mistakes creates an environment in which people will be fearful of admitting mistakes, and they will attempt to hide what’s happened or blame others. No one’s perfect. Indeed, striving for perfection is silly since it’s impossible to achieve. Focus on achieving excellence instead of perfection.

Coach rather than dictate

Effective leaders show, rather than tell, others what’s required. Demonstration is part of a coaching mind-set that all good leaders have. Coach your team members toward a more collaborative, committed work environment — without forcing it. Controlling people by forcing them to do certain things in certain ways breaks down engagement.

Coaching is about helping the people you lead to recognize the choices they have and to develop the required skills. They will then take a great deal of ownership over the direction of the project and their contribution to it.

Look at your own leadership

If those in a leadership position view the role as “just a job,” it’s going to show. To be an effective leader, you  must have the right motivation because it becomes apparent in your actions. Is it money or prestige you care about, or do you sincerely want to inspire others to do their best? Ask yourself why you are in this role in the first place.  

If your team sees that you are trying your best, they will grant you the benefit of the doubt. Trying your best usually includes helping teammates and crew members become better too. If you’re  power-hungry and serve only yourself, you can watch as crew bleed off the ship.

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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