Effective leaders lead by expertise, not by authority. Expertise could be defined as the highest possible skill in that domain, and can help save lives and ships run smoothly.

When people observe that experts know their job, and that they can understand their teams’ problem, or even help solve it- such experts gain the trust of their team. Much like a keel that supports and stabilizes the hull of a ship, an officer’s expertise is the basis of their leadership.

On the other hand, lack of expertise is often the reason for navigational accidents, machinery failure or damages, cargo claims and personal injuries- news of which we hear about almost daily.

Expertise cannot be obtained just with a certificate, but rather is cultivated through a long, deliberate, and passionate learning process. Competency certificates may be sufficient to get the job done most of the time, it does not assure the high, flawless performance a ship deserves. Also, research shows that we forget a lot of what we learn, and some of our previous studies become irrelevant over time. Hence, competency certificates are only a starting point; aim for expertise, and the continuous development of expertise.

To help understand the expertise-development process, I introduced the Porthole Model of Expertise in my book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas.

The inner circle, the starting point, is our area of competency gained from our studies and time at sea. The outer circle represents expert level skill and knowledge. Between these circles lies our untapped potential.

The strategy to get from competency to expertise are four-fold:

  1. Deliberate practice: This includes practice of a task in an intentional, thoughtful manner. It also means that we complete out our current tasks with maximum effort and professionalism, despite all challenges and moods. One good way to keep track of our effort is through setting ‘micro-goals’, such as acknowledging our accomplishment in tasks such as plotting a non-GPS plot, reading a manual, completing a cargo operation or a maintenance task. Deliberate practice also includes making a conscious attempt to carry out tasks which are outside our comfort zones, or beyond our job descriptions. This may include asking to be assigned to a ‘problem ship’ or a challenging trade. But it could also mean learning lateral skills like working a lathe machine or learning to code.
  2. Intentional knowledge: No matter how much the amount of practice, one cannot become an expert without the right kind of knowledge. We don’t always know what we need to know, and knowledge doesn’t easily come our way. One must go out there and obtain this knowledge; this is called Intentional Knowledge. The five powerful sources of intentional knowledge that can help build expertise are:
    1. Self-analysis by reading and reflecting
    2. Asking questions such as why, what and how are good tools.
    3. Journaling, i.e. recording our daily observations and lessons.
    4. Learning from mistakes (and successes).
    5. Observing and listening. Joining a constructive peer group helps.
    6. Receiving and providing training. Research shows that training is required at regular intervals, else the performance falls back to the base level.

3. Focused Feedback: Research shows that many of us begin our careers not knowing many of the things we need to know to be at our best. Feedback helps us here, particularly when we are able to develop the skill for actively asking ‘focused’ feedback, and when we can separate emotions from information when receiving feedback.Feedback opens the door to the unknown, but you must turn the door handle by asking the right questions.

4. Experience: There is no substitute for experience but we are not always able to control the kind of experience we will get. Therefore, ‘sea-time’ alone is not sufficient, and neither is it a reliable indicator of future performance. We can, however, maximize the value of our experience through deliberate practice, intentional knowledge and focused feedback.

Finally, being an expert is not a destination, it is a process.

Be aware of the limits of expertise. For example, I may have some good ship handling skills but not necessarily in ice navigation skills simply because I haven’t had sufficient experience.

It’s good to remember that we’re human. Experts also make mistakes, though they make less mistakes than non-experts. That’s where good teamwork can help alert each other when we are going wrong.

A safer maritime industry won’t just happen. Expert seafarers with powerful problem solving capabilities are key. What is required is the time, strategy and effort to develop expertise.


Above text is an edited version of Capt. VS Parani’s presentation during the 2020 SAFETY4SEA Limassol Forum

View his video presentation here below

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA, or his organization, and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.

Capt. VS ParaniHSSEQ Manager, Tufton Asset Management Ltd

Captain VS Parani, FNI, FICS, CMarTech-IMarEST is responsible for quality-assurance and risk-management at Tufton Asset Management Ltd. He values his experience of twenty-eight years in the shipping industry – from Deck Cadet to Master, and then in various corporate roles, leading departments responsible for the safety, crewing and training for large shipping fleets. He is also the Author of the bestselling book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, the Producer-Host of the GoldenStripes Podcast. He believes in continuous learning; along with his Master-Mariner’s license, he also holds Master degrees in law (LLM) and in business (MBA).