“I have sailed as a captain for 20 years, what makes you think there’d be anything at all you could teach me about leadership?”   Eyes blazing alarmingly, this Eastern European captain is clearly angry and infuriated

I am at a resort about 3 hours’ drive South of Manila and a 5-day leadership training course has just started targeting 25 Filipino and 6 Eastern European senior officers. It is my sixth and last course for this client, so after this course all senior officers in this shipping company have been through the obligatory leadership training course that started almost 2 years ago.

It is worth mentioning that the whole course – until today, that is – has been a great success for all parties. Not only have the majority of all participants, i.e. Captains, Chief Mates, Chief Engineers and 2nd Engineers from Europe and Asia welcomed the training. We have been able to trace the success through course evaluation forms filled by the participants, but also through feedback received from seafarers who have not participated in the courses. We know because the HR Manager has explained that junior officers and ratings have experienced some kind of change on board when the senior officers have returned to their vessels after finishing the course. The atmosphere is said to have improved. They express that the senior officers’ ability to build relationship with the crew members has somehow been boosted.

Junior officers and ratings have experienced some kind of change on board when the senior officers have returned after the course

But why is it then so difficult to make this last lot jump on the bandwagon now? The Technical Manager of the shipping company is sitting at the back as an observer, and he has warned me about this group before I left home. “You will probably experience them as somewhat conservative and outspoken, which apparently is the reason why they join this very last course, but from my chair at the office I always see them as clever and top professional. When the oil companies, for example, make a vetting inspection on board their vessels everything is always 100% in order. Neither when we are docking do we see any problems; they are always on top of things.”

Despite the warning I am puzzled by the somewhat intense reaction that I experience in relation to my teaching. It comes not only from the Captain, who has obviously lost his patience already before we have hardly begun, but also from the other Eastern European senior officers. I can feel that they are about to make some kind of alliance around their infuriated colleague.

Despite the warning I am puzzled by the somewhat intense reaction that I experience in relation to my teaching.

However, confidently I choose to go on according to the course plan. My content deals with culture concepts, how important it is that a leader at a multicultural work place understands how to lead and motivate people with a different culture than his/her own. I show a short film demonstrating and describing relevant theories and practice, I initiate a group work process in which the participants are to discuss their own experiences. A process I have run with success hundreds of times – a process which I am sure will work as intended.

But I am wrong. This time it doesn’t work as intended. My feeling is that now the group has reached some kind of consensus about being negative towards me, the instructor, as well as the message I try to convey. The Technical Manager draws me aside during the coffee break; he is visibly annoyed.

I dare not think about the atmosphere they produce for the others on board

I do not approve of this. Suddenly I see another side of these people’s behaviour that I don’t like. I dare not think about the atmosphere they produce for the others on board trying to work together with such a bunch of grumpy old sailors from the past”

I sigh resignedly and shrug: “Well, for sure these guys are good and professional managers, because they obviously know how to manage tasks – how to plan and organise. It is indeed very important to have officers capable of doing that in a professional manner, for instance when you have a vetting inspection. However, they are definitely not good leaders. Leaders lead other people, they know how to inspire and motivate, which is even more important when you are a maritime officer – if you ask me”.

Leaders lead other people, they know how to inspire and motivate

The Technical Manager nods pensively and promises to discuss this with the group right away, so that we can hopefully lighten the atmosphere.

After ten minutes they return and I start the next subject. I now talk about communication: How can we as leaders ensure a clear communication of our messages so that our crew does not misunderstand us? How can we as leaders listen actively making sure that our crew is encouraged to be open minded and communicate with us? I can feel that the group has now decided on a ceasefire, so apparently the Technical Manager has managed to get the message across.

On day 2 we talk about feedback: How can we make sure that our crew receives an honest and constructive feedback when they do not live up to our expectations? We also talk about situational leadership and team leadership. Clearly my audience listens more intensely than the first day, so the atmosphere has become much more positive.

We also talk about situational leadership and team leadership

On day 3 we talk about self-management, about setting personal goals, about coaching and mentoring. The participants are asked to set their personal development goals and then learn how to coach each other to reach these goals. Even my tormentor from day one seems to have let down his guards now. Everybody buys in and participates actively in the process.

On day 4 we talk about conflict handling, how we can change our view on conflicts and how we consequently can become better at handling them in a constructive way. The participants share experiences from their own life on board, what took place in the past and how they will prospectively handle the situation differently if a similar conflict should arise.

Everybody buys in and participates actively in the process.

On the last night there is a social gathering. We mix and activate the participants across nationalities and positions through team building exercises and games. It’s hard to believe that we had a conflict at the beginning of the course, now that we see the Eastern European course participants enthusiastically build ships in carton and sing karaoke with their Filipino colleagues.

It’s hard to believe that we had a conflict at the beginning of the course

Before we finish on the last course day all participants elaborate action plans for their own personal development. The plan must cover at least three focus areas that the individual officer chooses determinedly to integrate in his daily behaviour.  The HR Manager receives a copy of the action plan so that she can ensure follow up after the course.

It is always a bit sad for me as the instructor to say goodbye to the many course participants on the last day. One of the last persons who stops by and shake hands is the Eastern European captain – my tormentor from the first day. He looks at me intensely, gives me a wry smile  and shakes my hand hard while he says: “Mr. Jakobsen – I will change.

Mr. Jakobsen – I will change
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Bjarke Jakobsen
Bjarke Jakobsen
Partner and Senior Consultant
Copenhagen

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