June 05, 2014

Warping the priorities of Command.

A Chief Officer on the verge of his first Command wanted to talk to me last week. He was understandably a little anxious about handling the responsibility and sounded me out on some of his concerns.

I was left with a feeling of considerable dismay at the end of a two hour conversation. Not because the man had many fears, but because all his concerns, without exception, centred on issues like PSC inspections, vettings, paperwork, reports, the ISM system and other (his words, not mine) ‘management issues’.  Not once did he seek input on the critical parts of a Shipmaster’s job; he seemed to have no apprehensions about ship handling or those critical decisions connected with safety that are solely a Captain’s responsibility. ‘Management issues’- to me, piffling in comparison- were all consuming.

The other thing that struck me was how fearful he was of everybody- his employers and outside inspectors included.  Even commercial inspections terrorised him; my giving him some of my better experiences with, for example, the US Coast Guard, did nothing to help. I had to tell him, finally, that it was a sinking ship that was catastrophe; failing a Port State Control inspection was not. I don’t think he got that.

This is one the problems with shipping’s obsession with the word ‘management’- we have made timorous administrators out of our seamen. Our compulsive fixation on at-sea paperwork and administration has resulted in a dangerous shift of priorities. The tail is now wagging the dog.

Everybody is a product of the system, so I will not comment on whether this Chief Officer is fit, in my opinion, for Command or not (Besides, he may read this!). It appears to me, nonetheless, that the system has degraded itself. Maybe too many making decisions ashore have too little seagoing experience and maybe people ashore believe that the sleight of mouth that works in shore offices works at sea too. Whatever it is, too many seamen are buying the idea- the idea that on ships, management is more important than seamanship.

The fixation on ‘management’ is not just about the shift away from critical priorities. I have seen first-hand how managers use administrative systems as weapons against crews. I have seen officers and Masters slowly co-opted into a half belief that the part of decision making that belongs on board is actually some kind of collaborative exercise between managers and Captains. Of course, managers are quick to point out that the Master has ‘overriding responsibility’, but maybe many Masters today need to be reminded of more than that. Maybe they also need to be reminded that the buck stops with them and that there is no collective responsibility at sea and neither is there much collective decision making. Maybe they need to be reminded that managing a problem is different from fixing it.

In my defence, though, I did remind this Chief Officer of all that. I did speak to him about what I felt were important things, of which there were many that were not on his agenda. I tried to do my bit.

I also told him in the end that I felt that one of a Captain’s biggest qualities was the ability to tell his employers, especially if they pressurised him on critical safety issues, to take a hike.  This attitude went hand in hand with knowing your job, I told him. In fact, it was part of the job, the ability to tell people to take a hike. I confess the term I actually used was far more direct and far more profane, but what the hell. Communication is all about getting your point across, isn’t it?


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