Guest Feature: On Maritime Leadership

Published Aug 1, 2012 9:27 AM by The Maritime Executive

Today’s maritime industry provides more services to a more diverse population in more places than ever before. But with attention to a few basic leadership tenets, industry leaders will be poised for the challenge.

By Patrick S. Malone, Ph.D.

Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin was a remarkably versatile diplomat, congressman, linguist and ethnologist. In 1808 he created a national plan of interconnected ports, roads and inland waterways to encourage the development of a young nation. Yet even Secretary Gallatin would have difficulty imagining the complexity of today’s maritime world and the leadership skills necessary to navigate it.

For today’s maritime leaders, this means either (a) you consider yourself lucky and are uniquely positioned to make a major impact on the lives of millions of people worldwide or (b) you consider yourself perpetually challenged, continually exhausted and in serious need of a mid-life career change. Both perspectives are valid. You’re in an exciting industry that has far more importance to worldwide commerce, security and social stability than most people realize. But like any high-profile job, there’s good and bad – along with leadership challenges – to consider.

The Good

The U.S. has always embraced the moniker of a maritime nation. As such, it continues to have a growing need for maritime research, development and modernization across the industry. We’re seeing evidence of this on many fronts, beginning with resource availability.

More Resources: Last month the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded 11 U.S.-based companies nearly $5.9 billion in contracts for “international and intermodal distribution services.” Also, according to a survey conducted by the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), U.S. seaport agencies and their private-sector partners plan to invest $46 billion over the next five years to cover capital improvements, largely in anticipation of the Panama Canal expansion. The potential results of this investment are staggering. Formulas provided by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis predict that investing $46 billion in infrastructure at U.S. ports creates more than 500,000 direct, indirect and induced domestic jobs.

Increasing Volumes:  Fueling the improved resource landscape are the ever-increasing volumes expected in our nation’s ports. According to a June report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) titled “U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization,”
U.S. trade is expected to grow tremendously over the next 30 years, with imports to quadrupling and exports increasing seven-fold. USACE also anticipates the post-Panamax vessel fleet will eventually account for 62 percent of the world’s total container capacity. As the nation’s cargo volumes and cruise passenger counts increase, there will be an intensifying need for properly trained personnel along with a modern, secure operational infrastructure. Railway and road improvements become critical to handling increased volumes. Likewise, deepening and dredging ship channels and enhancing navigational aids will ensure safe passage on the waterways.

More Innovation: This is also a remarkable time for innovation and vision in the industry. Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd. recently announced the completion of the Emerald Ace, the world's first newly built hybrid car carrier. This 199-meter-long vessel can carry 6,400 passenger cars and has 768 solar power panels installed on its deck and is the first ship in the world to produce no emissions when not at sea. In another example, the Port of Pittsburgh Commission awarded a $1.3 million contract to Conxx Inc., of Johnstown, PA to design, build and operate a wireless network system along the navigable waterways in Pennsylvania.

The Bad

Despite the improving outlook for business and innovation in the maritime world, the environment itself makes for a tough leadership challenge. Maritime leaders are facing barriers to success on multiple fronts – some of them not so obvious.

Nobody Knows You: Nothing personal here, but the average U.S. citizen is much more informed on how Howie Mandel voted on “America’s Got Talent” than on the complex nuances of a busy and challenged maritime industry. And their opinion of the impact on East Coast ports of the widening of the Panama Canal? They don’t have one – unless, of course, something doesn’t show up on the shelf at Walmart.

• A Negative Regulatory Environment: A common complaint of maritime leaders? You bet. The regulatory environment always seems to be lacking. Calls for the federal government to institute a national freight policy have gone unheeded as has the call for more federal involvement to fund programs to accommodate increased cargo and passenger-handling requirements. Attacks on the federal workforce and on “Washington” during an election year do little to help.

• Major Problems Need Fixing Yesterday: This is especially true of our ports. According to the AAPA, each of the 50 states relies on at least 15 ports to handle its imports and exports, which total more than $3.8 billion worth of goods moving in and out of U.S. ports every day, for a total of about $3.15 trillion annually. In addition to the 19 U.S. ports providing strategic support to the military, they also manage large volumes of commercial cargo, which are expected to increase dramatically. Our ports are universally ill-equipped for such demand.

The Leadership Challenge

So are you ready for that career change?  Just say no. The challenges presented by today’s maritime world are significant but not deal-breakers. In fact, some of the very issues maritime leaders face provide avenues to enhance the industry. 

• Become an Advocate: It’s far too easy to sit back and whine about how the average American fails to understand the importance or, let’s be honest here, the simple definition of the maritime world. The immediate reaction I get when speaking to friends and colleagues about the maritime business is “Oh, you mean the Navy?” And things are not much better with maritime leaders themselves. Many will tell you the industry is a dying one: “Bulk carriers, shipping and liners have moved overseas. We’ve already lost the battle to Europe and Asia!”

To counter such attitudes, become an advocate. Promote the industry. Give local leaders and politicians a tour of your ship, port or shipyard. Get involved in local communities to further the good word on the maritime field. People find waterways enchanting and mysterious. Volunteer to attend career days at elementary and high schools and the local community college. You’ll not only feel good about the outreach, you’ll build important networks of future maritime employees that were inspired and informed by your presence.

• Forge Partnerships: The right approach lies in cooperation and collaboration among all levels of maritime leaders, public and private. Fewer resources, especially at the municipal, county and state levels, mean port authorities and maritime agencies must look to a collaborative approach to tackle problems in the industry. You need them and they need you!

• Mission First, People Always: This message adorned the desk of a young Navy lieutenant with whom I used to work. Indeed, organizational analysts will tell you that organizations are living, breathing organisms and have no more valuable asset than their people. Organizations and the people who commit their time and energy to them must be fed and cared for much like any living thing. It’s truly a symbiotic relationship.  Chances are if you, as a senior maritime leader, are feeling the pressure of a complex, demanding environment, your staff is as well. As I tell the senior leaders in my classes, it’s not necessary to become a roving Dr. Phil. But it is crucial to tend to the social and psychological needs of your team. Every minute spent building meaningful relationships will pay dividends down the road.

• Go With Your Gut: Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller Blink describes what scientists term the ‘adaptive unconscious,’ which allows our brains to operate as a giant supercomputer. As he writes, human beings could not have survived this long without having the innate ability to make quick and accurate judgments based on very little information. The fact of the matter is while many favor analytical, data-driven approaches to decision-making, sometimes these approaches lead executives astray.  Analytical tools have value, but they can be overly expensive, time-consuming and, frankly, wrong. So when all is said and done, look at the data, assess its value, and then go with your gut feeling.

• Never Misplace Your Ethical Compass: This is far more common than one might think. A few years ago crewmembers of the elite nuclear submarine USS Memphis were discovered to have been systematically cheating on training exams. The Delaware River Port Authority faced ethical transgressions in 2010. According to a recent Delaware State Inspector General report, many of the ethical reforms adopted nearly two years ago still have not been translated into daily practice. Were those involved in these situations acting with malicious intent? Were they over-zealous employees attempting to gain an edge or cut corners? Were they well-meaning staff trying to right a perceived wrong? Or were they simply just mistakes? Only those involved know for sure, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine ourselves in similar situations. Make no mistake: Ethical dilemmas are not limited to high-profile contractual awards with large maritime industry players. Leadership ethics begin, and exist, on a much smaller scale.

Leadership is a journey upon which all leaders should embark. Maritime leaders can find solace in knowing who they are and what they’re about. Communicating those values with staff allows for the development of trusting relationships that will result in collaboration and organizational synergy. In tough times, this social capital and common values will hold teams together. 


Dr. Malone is Executive-in-Residence and Program Director of the Master’s Degree in Public Administration with a focus on Maritime Affairs at American University in Washington, DC. Contact him at [email protected]