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Taking the Helm: Three steps help leaders in times of crisis

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

Crisis management isn’t thought about much until the proverbial mess hits the fan. Then it’s all we can think about. Only during a crisis do we consider this underappreciated skill. Thankfully, actual crises are relatively rare occurrences. 

Today is one of those rare times when crisis strikes. Two months ago, the world was happily spinning on. Today, some think the world is ending. 

While it’s natural in times of uncertainty to turn to the leader for definitive answers, sometimes the most honest answer is: “I don’t know right now.” The leader should quickly follow up with:  “Even though we don’t know, here’s what we’re going to do,” and create plan A, B and C.

And really, which is fortunate in this situation, uncertainty is fairly common on yachts. Owners who are wishy-washy with plans cause captains and crew to already have multiple scenarios ready to go. The boss arriving too late, or with too many guests, or wanting to spend more time in a marina with no space available, or any other number of possibilities, has actually trained department heads to plan with uncertainty in mind. 

Leaders on yachts seem to work with ambiguity and uncertainty on a regular basis. It’s timeless and comes with the job. The difference now is that during the current crisis, the normal ambiguity is multiplied. On a normal day, the chef wonders if they will get the best ingredients they can for the trip. The question now is whether the chef will find the ingredients at all. The captain wonders if the deckhand will make it back from holidays on the flight originally booked and whether they will need to be quarantined – if they even make it. 

As fear in the general public becomes contagious across cities and nations, leaders must be careful to manage their own responses to the wave of fear. Here are three steps to help navigate the increased uncertainty we all face.

  1. Anticipate. Predict what lies ahead.

In a crisis, leaders first need to understand their team’s state of mind. First and foremost, their people will need to feel safe before they can be expected to perform. Naturally, when crew know their friends and family members are locked in their homes after scouring the shelves for bathroom tissue and hand sanitizer, their focus isn’t necessarily on boat business. Once essential needs are covered, leaders can then focus on getting everyone aligned toward a common purpose, taking everyone’s mind off the crisis, even for a short time.

In team meetings, discuss the “unknown” of the current crisis against the “known” of previous ones. We all gain some perspective when we identify patterns, connect the dots, and determine appropriate and timely responses to the challenges we face. For example, what if travel bans expand and marinas turn vessels away, opportunities to buy food and fuel get further apart, or guests can’t easily leave or arrive? What is the impact on the boat as a whole? The skill of anticipating improves the odds for success.

  1. Communicate. Constantly.

With all the news we’re able to access, the team has to be kept up to speed on a more regular basis than normal. No crew member wants to feel they’re left in the dark. Additionally, rumors and misinformation move faster on a boat than the speed of light. As the leader, make sure to announce your door is open and anyone can come and ask anything. Keep the gossiping and useless drama buildup to a minimum, or stop it when possible through continuous team communication. Pick a time when everyone is gathered to announce updates and changes as required. If things are changing too fast for a once-a-day update, act accordingly.    

  1. Lead. Be seen out front.

There’s nothing like a crisis to accelerate learning. Apply past lessons to the new and unfamiliar situation. Build confidence in others by seeking input, and by doing yourself what you ask others to do – for example, asking everyone to wash their hands more often. It really comes down to knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

During a crisis, leaders must rely on past experiences and adjust what they have learned to apply to new, real-time fluid conditions. Solutions come from finding close comparisons. 

Encourage everyone to contribute solutions to the new, and hopefully temporary, world we’re currently in. Set a goal to anticipate, communicate and lead as best you can to make it through these troubling times. 

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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