Many would agree that good managers are important for well-being as well as work onboard. But what exactly is good leadership? How would employees like their manager to be, and how do captains themselves view their job? Last summer SAN news paid a visit to the new bulk ship Östanvik to talk about leadership. The ship has a crew of 11: six Swedes and five Filipinos.
Mika Jokinen, able seafarer deck
Mika has worked at sea since 1994. He started in the marine sector by chance, liked it and stayed there. The chief mate is his immediate superior and a good relationship with him is worth gold, says Mika.
– Having the right things at hand when a job is to be done, that really helps my work. A good chief mate listens to the crew and puts in orders in good time so that everything is there when you need it. Not everything depends on the officers, though. The shipping company has to send what is ordered for the ship for things to work out well.
Östanvik has a crew of eleven men and the work schedule is generally influenced by this small scale. Crewmembers work closely with each other and try to get the tasks done as smoothly as possible, without letting formalities make things complicated.
– We are very flexible. When there is a job to be done we don’t need to go to the chief mate. Instead we can discuss things directly with the others involved, such as the engine crew.
Mika thinks that communication onboard works well. Shared watches means that they get to know each other better, which makes work easier.
– When you sit on the bridge in the evenings and talk about all the stuff at home, you get to know a lot about each other. I think it is probably easier to talk with your bosses here than in many jobs ashore where you don’t meet in the same way.
Björn Forsby, captain
Björn has been working at sea since 1985 on ships in various sectors. He thinks that styles of leadership vary quite widely depending on the type of ship in question.
– On ferries with large crews, the captain has a greater distance to the crew. Here we work closely in a team.
Björn feels that one of his most important tasks is to create a good atmosphere and ensure that the crew feels good. Everyday life on the Östanvik consists to a large extent of working and sleeping, but Björn tries to break routines and do something extra when the opportunity arises. He knows that this is appreciated and notices how it lightens up life onboard.
– If we stop over on a Saturday we sometimes arrange a table-tennis tournament or a karaoke evening. It’s not so often, but it does happen from time to time. You can see straightaway when we have done that sort of thing and the crew has something apart from work to talk about. For the Filipinos who are onboard for six months at a time, it is particularly important to do something fun occasionally. You can see when they are feeling down, and then we try to cheer them up in some way.
It is also important, says Björn, that new employees are suited to the others in the crew, that they are competent and fit in on a social level.
– Our previous owner decided who would be employed with the help of a management company and we also had our say. That was a good system.
Björn says that he strives to set a good example, as well as showing humility and respect. He knows that his own behaviour influences the others onboard.
– If you fly off the handle, you will only have to apologise later on and explain that you were having a bad day.
Lars Stenström, cook
Lars has been at sea since 1964: for the first three years in the mess crew and then as a cook. The captain is his immediate superior and he is clear in his opinion about a good manager.
– Somebody who does not interfere and lets me get on with my job. The more freedom you have, the better.
Over his many years at sea he has noticed how attitudes and leadership styles have changed. Above all, managers onboard have become more accessible.
– In the past you never saw the captain, and you didn’t talk much at all with the officers, at least not as a cook. It is different these days. We have a shared canteen here as well, and that is a good thing. You get on better if you eat together. Things are not so divided.
Ines Roy, able seafarer engineer
Ines lives in Manila in the Philippines and has worked at sea since 1994. He is usually onboard for six months and is then at home for two months before setting off again. Ines thinks that a good leader is someone who can set a good example.
– Captains should not be too strict. They should be friendly, easy to talk with and act as a good role model. A bad leader is someone who sets rules which he does not follow himself.
Ines has worked under different European flags. Over time he has come to understand western-style leadership, but he says he still reacts to the wide differences in culture.
– European captains can say things such as,” What the hell” or ”What the fuck”. The first time I heard that, it felt strange – we are not used to using swearwords in that way. Now I understand that it is not meant in a negative sense, even though it doesn’t sound especially good.
Ines prefers to work in a group and says that he almost nearly works with the first mechanic. He likes that.
– Two heads are better than one, and I never work alone.
Sten Wahlin, chief mate
Sten took his sea captain’s degree in 2000 and has worked at Slite ships since then. He had no experience as a manager before he became a captain, but says that the crew work so much on their own initiative that he has had no problems in taking on the leader role.
– I think that being a captain is more difficult on deep sea ships and ferries with larger crews. Things on this ship run to a large extent on routines and you don’t need to ask people to do things. It is often they who come to me instead and tell me what they plan to do.
Conflicts onboard are rare, says Sten, but when it does happen it is important to deal with it before it turns into something major.
– If there are small incidents it is better to let those involved sort it out. But if it gets too big you have to get involved. You can’t allow it to interfere with work. It is unusual that people do not get along, but when it happens it is very noticeable on a small ship like this one.
Another aspect that is related to having a small crew is the risk that people become too close to each other. If the distance decreases and the limits between professional roles disappear, it can be tricky when situations arise that need clear leadership.
– I have seen that happen. For my part, I have no problems with it. I am not the type who seeks social contact in my spare time and I seldom watch a film or chat in the day room on off-duty watches. But I have a good relationship with the crew, and I don’t stand there and shout at them or lecture them. I think that people do a better job if they are allowed to take responsibility themselves.