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Taking the Helm: Balance high expectations with empathy, respect

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

I recently had a meeting with Susan, a woman who’s moved into the chief stew position for a 100m vessel with lots of crew under her. Since she’s never had a position of this scale before, she wanted to know how to be a leader who has empathy and understanding for her people, but also enough toughness to put the boat first. She said her basic struggle is finding a balance between being humane and being the leader the boat needs.

There’s no question this is a challenge because there is no one, perfect way to create this kind of balance. A lot of being successful in this type of situation comes down to personality, as well as how much people respect or don’t respect you.

One way to approach the challenge is to sit down with your team members one at a time and lay out your expectations of their performance when they do their job. Discuss with them at the beginning what they need to demonstrate during a set period of time – say a month, or three months – to go from where they are today to where they will meet all expectations. At this point, clearly outline the consequences of not achieving the expectations. 

If it’s a new hire, this may be the first three-month trial period in the role, or something similar. As you go through the meeting, make sure you write down what’s been agreed upon so everyone knows what they’re responsible for. 

Meet again at the end of the set time to go over what was agreed to. They’ll either have made good on their side of the arrangement or not. The balance here is that crew can’t blame you if they have not done what they said they’d do. This is one way to be tough and humane in the role.  

I’ve found the biggest impediment to getting people to do great work is being in their face too much. When we over-manage our team, we don’t let them find their own ways to tackle a problem and perhaps find solutions we never thought of. 

The point of meeting individually with team members is to set up goals and say go make it happen, then stand back and let them do their thing. We’ll quickly find out what they’re good at and not good at. Generally speaking, people will find their own ways to get things done if they’re allowed to do it their way.

In management discussions, we don’t hear much about the word “empathy” among all the other, more common buzzwords that are thrown around: leadership, authenticity, grit, motivation, etc. Real empathy is impossible to fake. People know when we’re not genuine. 

Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate empathy is to show you actually care about what the other person is going through. This comes across when co-workers know we’ve walked a day in their shoes, having done the job they’ve done.

As mentioned earlier, respect is a big determinant of success with our people. The reality of respect is that it’s earned, not commanded. Even though Susan has the title and responsibility for her department, she’ll have to behave in ways that develop respect from team members.

While there are many ways to grow and develop respect, a big part of being a leader is working with people we may not necessarily like. Rise above any negative feelings as much as possible and remember the golden rule: If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all. Because if you speak ill of someone you don’t like, it’ll get around to them.  

Leadership is a way of being. It’s about behavior and how we interact with the people around us. We earn respect through actions, not by being the smartest person or flipping on a switch to turn on a technique or style in the moment which we then turn off. When we lead our team, no matter the department or the boat as a whole, how we are as a person determines if others follow.

Capt. Paul Ferdais, skipper of a motor yacht, has a master’s degree in leadership and previously ran a leadership training company for yacht crew. Comments are welcome below.

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