Leadership Development in the Merchant Marine: The Growing Significance for the Future

Matthew Bonvento

How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, that person is a born leader; I could never do what they do as I am not a born leader”? That train of thought has recently come under increased scrutiny and debate as the U.S. Merchant Marine enters the 21st century. 

As part of this focus, the International Maritime Association (IMO) updated the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) with the 2010 Manilla Amendments. Included in that update were training requirements for management level officers to have training in leadership and managerial skills. Junior officers are trained at an operational level with the same skills: STCW 2010 outlines the requirements for junior officers to have the following skills at an operational level and senior officers to have been assessed for the same skills at the managerial level:

  • Knowledge of shipboard personnel management and training
  • A knowledge of related international maritime conventions and recommendations, and national legislation
  • Ability to apply task and workload management, including:
    1. planning and coordination
    2. personnel assignment
    3. time and resource constraints
    4. prioritization
  • Knowledge and ability to apply effective resource management:
    1. allocation, assignment, and prioritization of resources
    2. effective communication on board and ashore
    3. decisions reflect consideration of team experiences
    4. assertiveness and leadership, including motivation
    5. obtaining and maintaining situation awareness
  • Knowledge and ability to apply decision-making techniques:
    1. situation and risk assessment
    2. identify and generate options
    3. selecting course of action
    4. evaluation of outcome effectiveness
  • Development, implementation, and oversight of standard operating procedures (for management level officers only)

At the end of the day however, the question remains, is this enough? This was a topic focused upon by both Admiral Alfultis of the State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College and Admiral Buono of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) during last year’s Maritime Education Summit held on the Massachusetts Maritime Academy campus. During their presentations, both of the Admirals made a point of discussing how each school is focusing on training the future leaders of the maritime industry. STCW is only the mast upon which the sails of leadership can be flown. Much more is needed if the vessel is to get underway.

I thought back to my time at SUNY Maritime as a student and dug up one book which was required reading to Indoctrination officers at the time (Leadership Secrets of Atilla the Hun, by Wess Roberts) and decided to reread it after many years. After reading that, I picked up James C. Hunter’s book The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle, How to Become a Servant Leader. Before I knew it, I was taking online courses in AGILE leadership, and next thing I knew I had embarked upon a path of leadership training. What I came to realize and read over and over again is that although there may be people with innate people skills that make it easier for them to lead, leadership can be taught. But furthermore, the concept of leadership training and development is an underdeveloped field, with few schools offering courses in leadership. Management yes, but leadership no.

So that begs the question, what is the difference between leadership and management? According to a Forbes article published in November 2016, “Leaders create a vision, managers set a goal.” This is quite a fundamental difference that does not appear to be taken into account with the STCW courses, since predominantly they are marketed as “Leadership and Managerial Skills.”

I reached out to Col. Patrick Keane, USMC (Ret.), who is the director of Leadership Training at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, as well as to Dr. John Ballard, (also USMC (Ret.), the Provost and Dean at USMMA. What is apparent after speaking with them for only a few minutes is that the Marine Corps focuses in on leadership development very early on in every Marine’s career. This is accomplished in a straightforward path of allowing subordinates to take on demanding leadership roles with the supervision of a seniors to provide feedback. On the face of it, this may sound simple. However, this method requires important ideological buy in from both ends of the spectrum, validating and valuing the worth of this training. This concept is not new to the maritime schools, which all have a regimental training system. But importing the USMC system to the maritime academies would allow for a deeper evaluation of each students’ leadership potential and development. There is some recommended reading by Col. Keane to accompany the training:

  • Leaders Eat Last - Simon Sinek. Great lessons of leadership from the Marine Corps in particular and how they can be applied to business or other endeavors where the organization wants to optimize leadership.
  • Make Your Bed - Admiral McRaven. Leadership, honorable and ethical behavior and how he's applied what he learned in his career to everyday life.
  • Team of Teams - Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Talks about moving from efficiency to adaptability and how it applies to all organizations, not just the military.
  • Gates of Fire - Steven Pressfield. Fiction, but a great read about honor, ethics and leadership using the events surrounding the battle of Thermopylae.

Seminars on leadership as well as assigned readings expose the students to concepts such as Servant Leadership. The style of Servant Leadership is based upon senior leaders mentoring and guiding their juniors in growth and leadership potential, all the while maintaining a positive yet realistic demeanor.

While having leadership opportunities is important, just as important is the ability of someone to follow their leader and know how to execute appropriate orders with trust. Apportioning leadership training to both practical exercises and academic theory is important to develop in students the knowledge of when to lead and when to follow according to Dr. Ballard.

Training does not stop in school though. Captain Ryan Leo, an actively sailing master, discussed with me the need for senior shipboard management to instill confidence in junior officers to help them develop. Not only by providing them with the opportunity to lead on board, but by development of communication skills. One of the most effective leadership skills, according to Captain Leo, is the ability to hold direct and honest conversations. As discussed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the investigation report on the El Faro, the second and third mates should have been more forceful with the captain. But in reality, is that going to be the case on board most ships? Not always. Anyone who has sailed for that ornery, old sea captain can attest that open communication is not always easy. But directness is essential, even when unwanted. Junior officers should know when to respectfully question and voice their thoughts to a senior officer.

A commonality throughout the industry is the responsibility of any crew member to halt an operation if they spot or seriously suspect that there is an immediate danger to health. For those of us who sailed, we have all experienced the moment in our careers where we had to stop an operation to move personnel to safe positions or stop an operation before a fire broke out. These are special circumstances.

As leadership is discussed, so must the focus on managerial skills be emphasized. The STCW code lays out a great foundation for training on board managers who have the ability to conduct daily operations on board. Once again, however, these skills will atrophy by the time a junior officer reaches management level, unless time is invested during their formation period. Allowing junior officers to take on tasks directing unlicensed is not unprecedented, just underutilized. Management training is a discussion for another month.

Shoreside leadership should work closely with senior shipboard leadership to ascertain junior officers with long term potential within a company and provide them with ample growth opportunity as well as with encouragement. One example provided by Capt. Leo was a junior engineer who reported to him a chief engineer who was preparing to bypass the oily water separator and dump oil over the side. The actions of the third engineer save the ship and the company from a horrible pollution violation and what could have been a huge fine. The engineer was rewarded with a trip to the home office, a nice dinner and other perks. This type of incentivization should not be limited to extraordinary cases. Many companies provide the master a discretionary fund for crew awards, etc. The use of which should be encouraged to help develop potential leaders. Leadership training is the career development experienced from junior officer through senior officer up the executive ladder. The instilled confidence may help prevent future disasters.

Maritime Reporter Magazine, page 20,  Jul 2020

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