What we learn from our mistakes is not to take success for granted

August 8, 2017


It is easy to see why a ship’s master is a figure held in such high regard. The skills, responsibility and judgement needed, not to mention the daily challenge of balancing safety and commercial imperatives mean that it is a vocation that attracts a certain type of person.

From reading casualty reports, it is also occasionally possible to be shocked at the failure of decision-making by ship masters, chief officers and crews and the consequences for lives and property.

Supply and demand have a role to play. As we have seen in previous articles, the degree of competence among a ship’s qualified crew can be highly variable. But even at the top end of that curve, leadership stands apart.

Accepting this is fundamental to understanding why some succeed while others fail. Why did the chief engineer of the Bow Mariner decide it was safe to clean unventilated tanks, leading to an explosion that killed 22 crew? How did the pilot on Höegh Osaka know to hold the listing ship aground, saving the vessel, crew and most of the cargo?

The inescapable conclusion of reading Captain VS Parani’s ‘Golden Stripes – Leadership on the High Seas’ is that leadership is a skill that can be learned, a muscle that can be exercised and a system that can be practised daily.

Two illuminating anecdotes bookend this voyage from neophyte third officer faced with loss of steering on a 70,000dwt tanker to a master able to swing a containership into a Panama Canal anchorage without main engine power. What lies between is what makes a leader.

Parani joined his first ship to be greeted by a master seemingly fit for any challenge and an experienced crew as they completed cargo operations at an upriver oil terminal. Leaving the terminal and running at 14 knots to counter the current, the ship lost steering. With the tanker swinging rapidly to starboard and heading for rocks, Parani attempted to engage the back-up without success.

He admits he had no idea what to do and neither did the master. He seemed frozen, unable to act and it was clear he was not going to save the day. Instead, the pilot appeared, immediately ordering the ship to reverse engines and drop both anchors. After what seemed an eternity the ship stopped just metres from the rocky river bank.

What Parani subsequently realised is that decision-making is key to effective leadership, but that master was far from alone in his indecision. In fact, most people fail at decision-making at least half the time. Effective leaders know which decisions are important and over time acquire the judgement necessary to make the right ones.

There are some cardinal rules to avoiding poor decisions which Parani breaks down as hubris, assumption, indecision, avoidance and imprudence. In the first he stresses the need to stay alert and adaptable – a sense of chronic unease helps as does a feeling that ‘no news is not always good news’.

Buried in a daily fog of data and information, it is easy to assume rather than know.  Most of our assumptions are about people, so it’s a tendency to be conscious of and act against.

With indecision, our hardwired instincts kick in – freeze, fight or flight – and the leader must pick the right response; indecision makes easy things hard and vice versa.

It is human nature to put off decisions and in some cases avoid the reality of a situation. A leader needs to be able to take action at right time without fear of criticism. With due diligence and consideration, there is no reason to fear, he says. We learn more from bad decisions than from indecision itself.

Imprudence and seafaring do not make happy bedfellows. The decision of the Bow Mariner chief was driven by pressure to make the ship ready to a deadline, resulting in untenable risk-taking.

Risks don’t change because there is less time available to do a job says Parani. His advice is simple; consult, seek the views of colleagues, don’t make all the decisions yourself and take time where possible to evaluate your actions and their implications.

Parani says his first big test as master came on a 690ft containership approaching the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. Having tested engines and steering prior to transit and ahead of bunkering, the ship proceeded to anchor without pilot assistance in the strong currents of Cristobal harbour.

His berthing strategy was to go in at reasonable speed before going astern in the harbour, until the ship experienced engine problems, risking serious damage if he continued. If he did, he might then be unable to complete the transit on time, resulting in a major cargo claim.

On taking command, Parani had already assessed the ship’s steering, residual momentum and how it reacted to wind; information that came back in his hour of need. At half a nautical mile from the anchorage he judged that the ship could travel using its own momentum and could be manoeuvred into its berthing position.

His judgement proved correct but as he admits, many things could have gone wrong; an unprepared crew, delays in communication of the engine fault, anchor problems or sheer panic. Or he might have chosen to continue using the engine and risk serious damage.

Instead his team worked as one unit, despite their different cultural and social backgrounds. What he doesn’t say – perhaps out of modesty – is that the team responded to the leadership of a master they trusted and respected.

Golden Stripes – Leadership on The High Seas by Captain VS Parani is published by Whittles Publishing