I felt the deck shudder beneath my feet as the tug pulled the ship off the pier and the engines kicked ahead. The ship was now underway, and from now on, the buck would stop with me. This realization seemed to bring on the weight of the world on my shoulders. I had taken over my first ever command as a ship captain- a dream I had nourished for almost two decades. It was the moment of truth. I had never felt this way before, nor I would feel the same way since then- at least not to this extent.
The feeling lasted only a few seconds. The ship was due to turn to exit the harbour and it was time for action.
‘Starboard ten’. My voice seemed to come out on its own; it was loud and clear enough for the helmsman standing in the wheelhouse to hear me from the starboard bridge wing. The weight on my shoulders disappeared- I didn’t have time to think about it anymore. I felt like I was an extension of the ship.
Half an hour later, I had completed the manoeuvre. The 690-feet container ship had safely departed San Vicente, Chile and now was on auto-pilot with the Chief Officer in charge of the watch. This was a new leadership role for me and I promised myself to give it my best.
But was I born to be a ship captain? Not necessarily. No one in my immediate family had ever gone to sea before me. At school, I avoided any focus on me as much as I could. Things changed after I joined my first ship as a cadet and I soon realised that one had to display leadership in every role. This was not a choice anymore but my duty to keep myself, my colleagues, my ship and its cargo safe.
As my leadership responsibilities have grown over the years as a ship officer, captain, and then later in various corporate roles, I realised that each one of us is born to be a leader. We may lead in different roles; our personalities and styles may be different but all of us have the opportunity to make a difference to our own lives and those around us.
Leadership is an action, not a position. Leadership is not just wearing a uniform and giving orders- it’s about leading by expertise and helping your colleagues get through tough situations. It’s about leading by example. It’s about thinking ahead and having a positive and passionate approach. It requires communicating well with your team and getting your hands dirty when required. It’s about making timely and courageous decisions with a clear mind. Leadership is taking actions which you believe are the best for the situation and inspiring your team to do their part to achieve your collective goal.
So, how does it feel to be a leader? It is a privilege and a responsibility. It has given me sleepless nights thinking about how to overcome challenges but it has also given me joy when we achieved our goals. It also means I take responsibility when things don’t go as planned. You can be a leader and a follower at the same time but that still makes you a leader of your area of responsibility.
You don’t have to have the highest IQ or be the tallest person in the room to be a leader. You just need to have your mind and heart in the right place, and eyes keenly focused on the goal. Keep your ears alert for good advice, and your hands and legs ready for action. If it feels good, sometimes a bit scary- you’re leading well.
Of course, to lead well, you’ll have to be in a resourceful state of mind. You cannot expect positive results with negative thoughts. Find a way to destress, be calm and be decisive. Even if you are anxious when facing a new situation, you must inspire and give confidence to your team. Even on my first day in command, though I was concerned about the manoeuvre going on well, I didn’t deem it necessary to share all the thoughts running through my mind. That’s what matters most- how my team, ship and organization feel about my leadership, rather than what I feel inside when I lead. Of course, there will be times when we’re not satisfied with the progress that we’re making and may require us to express our frustration or dis-satisfaction- and that’s okay. I need to instil my team’s trust in me, and that I can deliver my part as required.
My crew needed to know that I care about their safety, welfare and careers- not just by my words but through my actions as well. My team, on board and ashore were satisfied our ship was sailing well and taking us to our next destination. We look forward to our next challenge together…and that’s an exciting feeling.
Written by Captain VS Parani, He is the author of Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, the world’s first book on leadership written specifically for merchant-mariners. He also writes blogs on maritime leadership at parani.org.
Amazon book link: https://www.amazon.in/Golden-Stripes-Leadership-High-Seas/dp/1849953147