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Maritime Leadership – The Fundamentals Haven’t Changed

You might become in charge of leading a team as your maritime career progresses.

The smooth running of ships depends on effective leadership, which encourages your team to work to the best of their abilities while maintaining their health, safety, and wellbeing. Your leadership style will serve as the foundation for the ship Safety Management System as well as directly affect the officers' and crew's motivation.

But what makes an effective leader?

A common response is that effective leaders establish strategy, inspire, define a mission, and develop a culture.

What should leaders do?

If you are asking an experienced and effective leader you’ll likely hear one response; get results. Shipping is a complex business and there are a number of ways that ‘getting results’ is measured in a ship board context. As a leader you may find your performance measured in terms of vessel operating efficiency, the number of accidents reported, cargo claims against the vessel or crew retention to give a few examples. These reflect the multifaceted nature of the leadership role as well as the various abilities and qualities you should aim to develop.

For leaders, having emotional intelligence is essential for success. Who is more likely to succeed – a leader who shouts at their team when they are under stress, or a leader who stays in control and calmly assesses the situation?

The fundamentals of leading at sea have not changed over the years. It still depends on coordinating crew members around shared objectives and getting things done while staying safe.

The Harvard Business Review reviewed the HBR Leader’s Handbook, reviewing several decades worth of articles to understand the recurring messages from academics and practitioners. Their conclusion from this research was that the best leaders almost always deploy these six fundamental practices:

  1. uniting people around an exciting, aspirational vision;

  2. building a strategy for achieving the vision by making choices about what to do and what not to do;

  3. attracting and developing the best possible talent to implement the strategy;

  4. relentlessly focusing on results in the context of the strategy;

  5. creating ongoing innovation that will help reinvent the vision and strategy; and

  6. “leading yourself”: knowing and growing yourself so that you can most effectively lead others and carry out these practices.

(HBR, Nov 2018)

Of course, there are situations when the starting point is different or when one of the six areas needs to be given more weight than the others. Depending on their personalities or the situation, certain leaders may approach these behaviours differently, but they are always present regardless of whether you are working in a shore-based or shipboard environment.

Leading at sea will come in a variety of scenarios, in an emergency, resolving conflict or preparing for and executing a project or passage. A calm and composed attitude will build trust and confidence which will allow you to deal with most situations. Remaining impartial is a crucial part of allowing you to deal with conflict quickly and fairly; particularly in times of stress. Leading with your head and not emotions will gain the best results. Recognising your team’s strengths and using them effectively will not only motivate your team but ensure that they perform to the best of their ability.

Onboard Maritime are pleased to offer management/leadership courses and individual coaching to encourage you to reflect on your skills as a leader, learn how to manage resources efficiently and explore how to build and maintain a motivated and productive team.

Find out more about our Leadership/Management courses and coaching, as well as our MCA preparatory courses here: or contact us by email at


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