Stories on Maritime Leadership

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The Case for Practical Leadership

IMG 1166“Leadership is…the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

-Peter Drucker, my favourite management author.


This is a photo of my classroom, and 25 years ago I sat on the bench marked in yellow. This is at the Carmel School, in the Andaman Islands. The capital, Port Blair is a quaint little town where people make their living in tourism, in government offices and small businesses. What we have in abundance is the sight of the sea, lush green forests and lots of rain.

class 2

At school, I preferred to stay away from any attention, carefully avoiding nominating myself as class leader or even a house-leader. I was more keen on sports, quizzes and science experiments. Being surrounded by sea and ships, I was from a very early age, attracted to the sea. 

I jumped at the first chance I got and joined ship soon after school. Without going to a pre-sea course, I learnt the simplest of things from reef knots to the parts of an anchor windlass after joining my first ship. Things soon changed after that.

Within a year, I became a senior to an even fresher cadet. This was my first leadership role at sea, making sure he followed my learning process and stayed safe. Then it was leading a team of crew members in cleaning a cargo hold. 

Soon, after I became Third Mate, I was leading a team of four at the mooring stations. I was also now responsible for my own navigation watch, making sure I stayed alert throughout the 8 hours of watch- where my actions would directly impact the safety of this multi-million-dollar ship and the 22 crew below decks.

My responsibilities thereafter only increased. As Chief Officer, I was in charge of the deck and the catering crew. I had to liaise within the ship, with the 2nd Engineer to see that we had technical support as we needed, or they got logistical support from us. I had to communicate with shore personnel for carrying out smooth and safe cargo operations, as well as for ship operations.

As a Captain, my shipboard leadership were tested to the maximum, where almost every decision was a high-stake one. Besides responding to situations, I also had to ensure we maintained a robust safety culture, active teamwork, and continually kept training to excel at our operations. As a person who stayed away from leadership positions in school, I was now forced to lead myself, my ship and my team…and I enjoyed the responsibilities.

Was I a good leader on the ship? That's for my shipmates and my bosses in the office to comment. But I know that we sailed safely through storms, hazardous waters, fought a shipboard fire, successfully passed various inspections, carried all the cargo we could, dry-docked the ship without any major accidents.

We didn't know of leadership charisma neither did we need it. All we needed was for ordinary people like myself to run a tight, safe and happy ship, without accidents. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don't, and often luck has a big role to play in it. But can we leave our leadership outcomes to chance?

It bothered me that people responsible for running these huge ships with several lives on board have little leadership guidance. That's why we need more information in this space.

It's good that the International Maritime Organization has mandated leadership training for seafarers. Hopefully seafarers will remember what they read or listened to during a course or seminar, months or years later, and apply it to the situation.

I sorely missed a leadership guide as I was growing up in my career, and so I took it upon myself to write a book on practical leadership. Though mainly aimed at seafarers, I believe much of what I've experienced in my own career would resonate with people in other industries.

Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas is a no-frills book on maritime leadership, on practical leadership at work that will help anyone lead anything anywhere.

Because I believe leaders don't always have to be the person with the highest IQ, or excellent oratory skills or the tallest person in the room with the whitest teeth- these things help but are not a prerequisite. They however must intentionally develop their expertise, maintain discipline & motivation, show empathy and courage, display a safety-oriented and decisive mindset. They must be practical and display common sense. They should be people who can gain the trust and harness the power of their team to deliver superior performance. They should be people who can do whatever it takes get the job done.

I've shared these stories and leadership strategies in Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas. Whittles Publishing, ISBN: 978-1849953146, available on Amazon and other retailers.

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