What Makes A Good Captain? Leadership Qualities At Sea


  • Captain VS Parani names the key features for being a great leader at sea.
  • Leadership is an art, a skill, a discipline, and a mind-set.
  • All of which can be learned, and improved with practice.
  • These characteristics illustrate the fine balance every seafarer can strive to achieve to become a great leader.

According to an article published in Safety4sea and authored by Captain VS Parani, Leadership, as a special component of safe operations at sea, is a skill resulting from a complex combination of mindset characteristics which can be learned.

Leadership is a crucial aspect for safety

Capt. VS Parani, names the key features he believes to be the most critical for a great leader at sea.

Leadership is an art, a skill, a discipline, and a mind-set, all of which can be learned, and improved with practice.

The captain, chief engineer, or a department head are not the only leaders on a ship. Every mariner is a leader! A navigator who executes a collision-avoiding manoeuvre at two in the morning when everyone else is asleep, and one who guides his subordinate through overhauling a purifier – each one of them is a leader. On a ship though, the buck usually stops with the Captain, so the expectation from their leadership skills is perhaps greater than from others.

The following characteristics illustrate the fine balance every seafarer can strive to achieve to become a great leader.

Skilled leaders lead by expertise, not by authority

As they excel in their own area of work, good leaders share their knowledge with their team, and are keen to assist others. So even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘born’ leader, you can change your trajectory by upgrading or learning new skills.

Genuine leaders lead by example

Authentic leaders respect and reinforce the values, systems, and the code of conduct required on their ship. If you fail to lead by example, you fail to lead. It’s as simple as that.

True leaders inspire others

Leaders on a ship direct, coordinate, and supervise the activities of their team. They are also aware that they have a responsibility to create a positive atmosphere and a sense of community on board. Inspirational leaders truly care, and that’s why people care about what they say.

Effective leaders think ahead

Practical leaders know how to plan and systematically achieve their targets. They take initiative and are proactive rather than reactive. They are constantly anticipating challenges and ways in which to tackle them.

Gritty leaders have a ‘can-do’ attitude

Leaders need physical and mental stamina as well as the conviction that the toughest of tasks can be accomplished. Why? Simple. If a leader gives up, so will everyone else. After all, who wants to follow a negative, lazy person?

Dynamic leaders are passionate and committed

Shipping, like many other industries, is a stressful, hard, 24/7 business. Without passion and commitment, one cannot succeed.

Captain Iakinthi Tzanakaki won a special ‘Woman of the Sea’ Award at the Greek Shipping Awards 2014 for her action in protecting her tanker, Amphitrite, and its crew, during strong winds at an oil terminal in Beirut.

The Mooring Master had assured her that he had the situation under control and that the tugs would soon arrive to assist the ship. Very soon, the wind gusts picked up speed, the tanker’s mooring ropes started parting and the ship was pushed towards another tanker at the terminal.

Sensing that no help would arrive in time, Captain Tzanakaki took control. From a point where the two ships were only about twenty meters apart, she expertly maneuvered the tanker out of imminent danger using the engines and the thrusters. Had she not taken the initiative, everyone else would have waited for the Mooring Master to take action, blaming him if things had gone wrong. But that is not what passionate leaders do. Instead, they channel their conviction into doing what needs to be done.

Active leaders get their hands dirty when required

Involved leaders are always willing to help with work when needed. Leaders do not ask others to do something they themselves wouldn’t do. And although they demand excellence in work, they aren’t hard taskmasters.

Influential leaders communicate well

Leaders understand that every time they communicate, it is an opportunity to influence and lead. They communicate directly and decisively, all the while striving to be understanding and respectful.

Successful leaders do not strive to get followers but want to build leaders!

Visionary leaders prepare for the future and the unexpected by creating more leaders who can take on more responsibilities and grow in their careers. Great leaders enjoy coaching, mentoring, and training others, urging others to take on more responsibility.

Leaders are humble

A good leader is humble; they respect the sea, the ship and their colleagues. Such leaders are generally approachable, and they tend to be great listeners. By listening, they ensure that they don’t miss any warning signs, and gain the admiration of their team.

Bold leaders lead with courage

As a seafarer, it takes considerable fortitude and mettle to make potentially life-altering decisions day after day. Your team relies on your decision-making process, and they also expect you to express yourself in a calm, yet decisive manner, even in times of crisis.


These eleven points summarise what he considers to be the traits of great leaders at sea, further affirmed by the role models—Captains, Chief Engineers, Pilots and Surveyors. Inspirational leaders truly care, and that’s why people care about what they say.

About Capt. VS Parani

Captain VS Parani is the Author of the bestselling book Golden Stripes – Leadership on the High Seas, and the Producer-Host of the GoldenStripes Podcast. He is also a Fellow of the Nautical Institute, a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers and a Member of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology. In his various corporate roles, he has helped improve the fleet safety record, and achieve very high personnel performance.

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Source: Safety4sea


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