November 17, 2011

Command failure


When a forty-five year old Master- with eleven years of command experience under his belt- tells me that he has pretty severe family problems at home but is nonetheless compelled to rejoin his last company since they have 'given him a call', I know one thing for sure: he will not be doing his job properly on board, because he is typical of the Captain who will bow to pressure every time it is applied to him- or even when it is not.

To be fair, I have seen this trait- the desire to be ingratiating at whatever cost-  more amongst officers who work for ship management companies, even more so if they have been associated with a single firm for a large chunk of their careers. Ownership companies- if they manage their own ships directly- are generally more practical. They look at longer-term interests and associations; they understand that the relationship is symbiotic, and so do- mostly- the people who work for them. There is therefore more give and take on both sides. The idea is to work together; much better than the Big Daddy culture that permeates especially the larger shipmanning setups.

The problem is that a management setup is, despite claims to the contrary, usually just body shopping. A management firm is an intermediary that puts its own interests way ahead of the ship owner's- an idea that is directly at odds with any Captain's responsibility, where the interests of the crew, cargo and owner (not manager) must be protected first. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of these companies have more than their fair share of Masters who are either spineless or are unable to assert their authority, for strong self-assurance is not rewarded here. Gutless behaviour, on the other hand, will keep all those clerks happy in the office- that in turn will guarantee you a job, it is hoped.

How many times have I heard submissive senior officers say of a management company, "This company is good; they have 150 ships. Even if one ship owner does not like you, they will put you on another ship." This attitude spills over into all facets of work. These Masters and Chief Engineers keep a low profile, hesitating to make a call or postponing important decisions, hesitating to stick their neck out, expending huge effort in doing little except sitting out their contracts. Their lack of confidence is staggering- and, on a ship, dangerous.

I know why companies promote such shooting-yourself-in-the-foot kind of behaviour, but they can only be blamed for this wishy-washy culture up to a point; the truth is that many senior Masters and Chief Engineers will happily crawl when they are asked to kneel. I have come across these officers too often, showing a spineless eagerness to break the rules or compromise on safety for commercial advantage. I have seen them overloading ships, sailing without essential spares, compromising on the safety of navigation, pumping out oil, cheating on cargo and bunker figures, accepting substandard safety equipment, nickel and diming the crew with wages, working conditions or food and generally behaving like clerks in a government office rather than senior officers responsible for two dozen crew and a ship with its cargo. Even when nobody in the office hints that they push the safety envelope, they often do so anyway, perhaps to demonstrate their warped loyalty to the company. All of which comes under the heading of 'not doing your real job', in my book.

Ignoring all expletives (something I am finding very difficult to do here), I want to tell my friend-the one who is ready to rejoin- many things. I want to tell him that a self-effacing nature is good only if it is not the outcome of a lack of self-confidence. Rejoin if you must; that is less important than my belief that your attitude, continued on board, makes you unfit to be a Master. 

Remember your first loyalty is to the ship, its crew and cargo. This is not my opinion; this is the law. Remember the ship owner comes before the ship manager- you can figure out where loyalty to yourself fits into all this.

Remember that the crew, owner or ship manager do not have to like you. Much better if they respect your professional competence; that, after all, is what you are being paid for. So make decisions, even the tough ones; that is your prerogative, not that of some accountant in some office- or even the Superintendent's. Remember that an ingratiating person may be liked but he is usually never respected. Besides, somebody like me automatically questions the competence of a person who is always bending over backwards for nothing.

Remember that it is not enough to know your job; you have to execute it. Which means being tough but fair with everybody- crew and managers included. Which means being able to say no to the crew- or the head of your body shopping setup. Which means being assertive- sometimes aggressively so. This is called being in Command. A Master who is forever eager to jump through hoops and wag his tail in an attempt to ingratiate himself with an organisation with which he has a contractual relationship is not in Command.  

Realise that the safety of the ship is paramount, and you are required- by law and otherwise- to put your foot down whenever attempts are made to pressure you into taking short cuts. Remember that this often entails an aggressive stance that is completely at variance with an ingratiating attitude. The managers or owners who push you really have no option if you say no. They can replace you, sure, but that will come later. Until they do, however, they have to do what you say, Meanwhile- in Connery's words from the movie- they are stuck between a rock and a hard case.

I want to tell him that anybody who is unwilling to take responsibility for his job on a ship- or somebody who is happy to outsource his decision making to sometimes unqualified, often unaware and probably less experienced people sitting thousands of miles away- is not fit to be given the responsibility to begin with. 

I want to tell him that he has been a merchant ship Captain for more than a decade; it is time he started behaving like one.

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