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Taking the Helm: Leaders, set an example; take care of yourself

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an incredible test of character and determination for all crew on yachts. Captains have had to deal with extraordinary demands, which has led to a serious test of leadership. Daily habits have had to change to weather the storm raging around us.

Coping with the sudden shutdown of the global economy has been hard enough. Figuring out how to restart trips and charters in these uncertain times is even harder. In all of this, captains are expected to demonstrate calm and optimism to everyone around them, even while personal issues may be raging in the background.

Everyone wants leaders to demonstrate empathy and sympathy. At the same time, leaders are results-driven and one can sometimes override the other. Additionally, leaders are expected to make a positive difference in people’s lives with their leadership.

Yet, for all their focus, they’re dealing with many new questions for which they don’t have answers, even as their team members look to them for direction.

In normal times, the captain acts differently for different people as necessary: surrogate parent for some, a disciplinarian for others, as well as coach, teacher and more. Things are more uncertain today. So, with this in mind, leaders as well as team members need to remember to help themselves. 

Fatigue after months of pent-up anxiety can cloud our judgment and interfere with our ability to logically process information and remain level-headed. No one can ignore what our body tells us; we are not invincible.

We’ve all heard about and probably live by the comments listed below. We must take them as a reminder to include ourselves in the advice we give to those around us.

Replenish the mind and body

Find the time for simple daily routines that can preserve our mental and physical stamina. Take time out for a break. While it’s important to demonstrate empathy, circumstances may require empathy from others. As one captain explained, “It’s OK to admit that you sometimes feel powerless or unprepared for this crisis.”

Included in the daily routine, be sure to get regular exercise. We may put off our workout today and tomorrow and the day after due to the immediate nature of new emergencies that pop up. Take time to protect your future self.

Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep needs to be a priority rather than an afterthought. Turn off phones, tablets and other screens 30 minutes before going to bed to decompress. Try reading a book instead of watching a screen to help clear the mind before sleep.

Break out of personal isolation

Even the best of times on a boat can feel like we’re quarantined. Our current reality can make this feeling even stronger. If not in an imposed quarantine, get out as much as possible. People around us may be fearful of what’s happening, which can influence our willingness to meet with people or try to get out of isolation. Fight the fearful influence to demonstrate leadership in trying times.

Additionally, family and friends are helpful in breaking out of any self-imposed isolation. There may not be too many actual family members around, so we’ll need to rely on our yachting family as necessary.

Create symbolic acts

Captains and leaders on a boat are under scrutiny at the best of times. Today, leaders are under a microscope. Leaders of all types have had to be extremely thoughtful about the nature and sequence of their actions to illustrate the new style of management and the new priorities everyone must adhere to. 

Some captains may balk at the pandemic rules put in place; others do not. At the end of the day, nothing we say will make any difference regarding a country’s policy or regulations. If we try to ignore or not follow the rules, what can happen is a feeling of alienation from the people around us who don’t feel the same way. 

So even though we may not agree with a procedure implemented beyond our control, step up and do what the new norm requires. This act of symbolism will send messages to the team that no one is too good for the events going on around us.

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

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