July 04, 2013

Cookie-cutter cowardice

Ashore or afloat, shipping professionals- particularly Asian shipping professionals- would do themselves and the industry a lot of good if they displayed just a little bit of old-fashioned courage in their day to day working lives. I mean managerial, operational and professional courage at the workplace, of course, not the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-step-outside-the-bar kind some of us are more familiar with.

At sea, the ISM Code has contributed its bit to deteriorating standards of seamanship, initiative and the implementation of simple common sense at work; this is mainly because it has promoted a culture of paper instead of one of efficiency. Ashore too, managers are wary of challenging what a piece of paper says so, however hastily thought out and poorly drafted that paper may be. Combine this with the feudal outlook that still prevails in many Asian countries- where contradicting your boss or the system is inviting retribution- and you have a situation where mediocrity triumphs over progress almost every time. 

I have never understood why so many Masters and Chief Engineers- and other ranks, too- are afraid to speak their minds, or why they seem unable to unshackle themselves from the tyranny of the checklist. Or simply say no to unsafe or illegal instructions. After all, they are in an ideal situation to do so- contractual employees whose bosses and auditors work thousands of miles away can easily afford to be mavericks. But somehow it doesn’t work that way. Here again, Asians seem to have more of a lemming-like need to conform, to not rock the boat, to not stick their neck out for fear that it will be chopped off. 

Managers in shipmanagement offices too, particularly in Asia, seem to thrive on doing the same inane things over and over again, never mind how ineffective the outcome or how much sense it makes. The attempted standardisation in everything too often seems to result in the spread of mediocrity and the slaughter of initiative. Fear is the key here, again- we seem happy to work anonymously, living pay check to pay check like the filing clerks the system wants us to become, rather than make an utterance contrary to the thoughts of the majority or the system. Rather than use our brains, that the same system has hired. The malaise is spread not just at sea or in shoreside management; it is even more evident with national and international regulators and administrations that suffer the additional diseases of bureaucratic lethargy, cronyism and corruption.

As for industry, the use of the much hyped and much overused catch phrases – team and ‘team player’- do much to encourage conformists and stifle dissent. The common industry understanding of a team seems to be that of a group of people working together effectively towards a common goal. Inherently implied in this, however, is the notion that a ‘team player’ doesn’t make waves, does not express dissent and submits, instead, to the majority early in the game.

I vehemently dispute this. To me a team is a group of diverse individuals, often with contrasting ideas and ways of working, that come together to achieve something. Friction is welcome; that lubricant will make for better decisions and more effective outcomes. Also welcome are people who are different, because only those are irreplaceable; lemmings can be replaced instantly. Rebels are welcome too- they usually get things done faster and more efficiently, and bring an electric dynamic to the group. To view the team instead as some kind of homogenous outfit whose members are clones of each other is nonsense, but that is what is widely expected today of ‘team players.’ Even the suits are identical, like something out of ‘The Matrix’.

The problem with this kind of behaviour is that it promotes a decline in standards across the board- since nonconformist ideas are not really welcome, the tyranny of the mediocre majority rules- and weakens the system to a point where it is unable to cope with any change, let alone a threat. This is very evident at sea, today, where many Masters seem unable to make even simple administrative decisions without consulting ‘the office.’  One may think that there is no harm in doing so, given easy communications, and ordinarily there wouldn’t be. But seafaring is not an ordinary profession; the harm is evident when the same Masters are faced with life threatening situations that require immediate and affirmative action that only they can take. Decision making at sea is a habit of Command that atrophies when not used sufficiently. It is not a shirt one wears and discards at will.

Read your history. Shipping- seafaring or shipowning- has traditionally been a maverick’s domain. Whether at sea or ashore, rebels have been the ones riding the waves ever since the first man thought of floating a piece of wood in the water and sitting on it. Over the centuries, this is the brand of men that has forged change. They have risked their lives and their fortunes by making decisions, many of which were contrary to the established thought of the day. Progress in shipping- like most everywhere else- has come from rebels, dissenters and out-of-the-box thinkers; people who were not afraid to be different. People who were confident, and did not feel an overwhelming need to toe the line. 

Shaw said that all progress depended on the unreasonable man. Shipping would do well to remember this, and to rein in its relatively recent propensity to embrace abstruse management concepts that belong more in the classroom than at sea. To move ahead, we need more unreasonable men out there. We do not need cookie cutter managers or seamen afraid of their own shadows, for that is an open invitation to decline. 



Reid Sprague said...


I've never read any of Philip Slater's books, I'm ashamed to say - but I was struck enough by a thumbnail description of his book "The Pursuit of Loneliness" (in an obituary I read the other day) to order a copy.

The idea that caught me was a description of how modern man voluntarily fastens the chain around his own neck, and willingly surrenders his own privacy and independence - in return for consumer goods, "fun" and meaningless freedoms (meaning those that don't threaten the ruling elite). Conform and enjoy!

It seems to me, after a long life of observing society, that there's some truth to that point of view. The book is on its way, and I hope to learn more. Have you read him?

24/7 communications aboard ship have put pressure on the Master's independence - but you are correct, his independence is his to keep or lose, and technology be damned.

Another excellent post - thanks, Manu!

manu said...


Nope, haven't read Slater, but, after reading your post and looking him up, intend to. On my list already.

And yeah, what you say is absolutely right.

The problem with the rat race, as somebody said, is that even if you win you are still a rat.