Captains & Crew: Fostering Teamwork Onboard

Written by: Lynne Edwards

The early years of Captain Kelly J. Gordon and Captain Brendan O’Shannassy differ quite dramatically. While Kelly grew up on a farm in small town Indiana, far away from water, Captain Brendan messed about with boats as a boy, in an Australian coastal town. However, both grew up to embrace uncertainty and followed their hearts to become the highly-esteemed and respected Captains they are today.

From celebrating your crew’s individual choice of sockwear to mucking in with the rest of your team, they share their thoughts on what they continue to learn about effective leadership onboard. 

How do you foster teamwork within your crew?  


If the boat needs a vacuum, I do it. If it needs a rinse down, I do it. The crew see that I’m willing to jump in wherever needed, which creates a sense of allegiance. I also make it very clear that, while we all have our designated roles and tasks, I won’t accept ‘that’s not my job’ as a response, which you’ll sometimes hear amongst divided crews.


During the recruitment stage, I send out a questionnaire that challenges the applicant to think about the most important values in their life. At this stage, this is more important than technical skills. From thereon, I can begin to build a team who share a single perspective. However, I’m also looking for crew members who have strong self-awareness and aren’t afraid to challenge ideas.

How do you create a unified vision?


First of all, I ask them how they want the boat to be viewed by others and always ask for their input. Sometimes their suggestions work and sometimes they don’t. But I think the simple act of including them and truly valuing their expertise and knowledge ensures that the team remains aligned. 


I look to the International Safety Management Code (ISM) for guidance, in particular, their point – ‘issue appropriate orders and instructions in a clear and simple manner’.

Earlier in my captaincy, I sometimes jumbled my messaging. My absolute focus now is to deliver them very clearly. If this is achieved the crew tend to be more motivated about their outcomes. 

How do you resolve conflict and maintain discipline onboard?


I am extremely good at sensing when the vibe is ever so slightly ‘off’ and will address this straight away. My crew will tell me what they’re frustrated about, and I will ask if they need me to ‘referee’. This instantly sparks a sense of accountability and encourages them to resolve it in a mature manner on their own. This wouldn’t be possible though without an established relationship. I continue to work hard at this and aim to take really good care of my crew. If they upset me, I can usually tell them directly.  


A captain must get out and seek to learn the culture of their people on a daily basis. Otherwise, a culture of toxicity and poor discipline can creep in – or what I refer to as a ‘slow emergency’. This happened to me, when I was ‘too busy’ with the demands of captaincy.

But in the event of poor behaviour or an incident that results in disciplinary action, I think it’s important to show empathy and approach the person you’re disciplining with a coaching mentality. Ask them questions about their behaviour and try to understand their perspective. What has the experience taught them and what would they do differently next time? If they’ve genuinely learnt something, it might not be appropriate to let them go. 

What qualities do you have that make you a good Captain?


I have a strong sense of empathy and can sense when something or someone isn’t ok, within seconds. I am probably my crew’s friend before I am their captain. And, while many may say that is the wrong way to go about it, it has worked well for me.  They all know I would walk the ends of the earth for them and rely heavily on them to know their skill and perform it well. That also lets them know I trust them. So, when I have to pull the ‘captain card’ they always listen, as I do it so infrequently.  Confidence and kindness are also important. My mother taught me to stay true to my authentic self, which is largely what has gotten me to where I am today. I never felt there was any reason to be fake. 


I took a huge leap forward in my career when I discovered the term ‘Psychological Safety’, which has a direct impact on performance in teams. The key part of this is creating and maintaining an environment where all members of the team feel able to be their authentic selves, without fear of being ostracised or criticised.   

Here are three simple steps to follow:

  •       Acknowledge and praise whatever it is that makes them a little different – whether it’s their unconventional taste in socks or jumpers.
  •       Be Kind – slow down and show compassion and gratitude to the crew.
  •       Laugh with each other and offer support in the hard times.

Why is it important to keep the saw sharp?


I am a huge advocate of always trying to better myself as a leader. This means focusing on listening, being kind, and working through ‘my own stuff’ that’s deep within my mind. I love to learn and teach, and I never stop doing both. I have found over the years this process is somewhat cyclical. Sometimes you will encounter greater periods of growth than others, but you must always sit back, reflect, and look for ways to be better. 


‘Not all readers lead, but all [good] leaders read’. To be a good leader, you must put yourself out there to learn –  read, listen, study and be ready to drop your long-held or unchallenged beliefs.

‘The Progress Paradox’ and ‘Our Moment on the Earth’, both by Greg Easterbrook, really shaped my views. Similarly, Sapiens made me reflect on humans’ relationship to our environment. I am currently reading the books of my daughter’s International Baccalaureate reading list to join her in the journey.

What crucial lesson have you learnt in your career?


It’s important not to mull over an issue in your head for too long.In the past, I’ve wanted to think about the issue or concern before I react. But I’ve done this to the extent I’ve taken too long to address the crew, when actually they’d appreciate me speaking up sooner. So, I’ve been working at getting quicker with feedback when I’m upset about something. 


Listen to Learn. This may sound so simple, but it took me decades to absorb this simple mantra. I now aim to speak to every crew member every day. This may only involve a brief conversation, but it gives me an opportunity to look in their eyes.   When the chance presents, I seek to get ‘Three questions deep’ and really listen to what the crew are telling me. It means I get to learn about them, their challenges, their hopes and dreams. When they are not performing at 100% I can see it and often I have an insight into why.. maybe they need space to get through it, or maybe I need to rally around them to support. Not only has this enhanced my leadership, it makes my job far more enjoyable.

What are the qualities you have that make you a good leader? Would you like to develop them? To find out more about our life-changing leadership courses.

To find out more about Kelly Gordon’s journey to Superyacht Captain, listen to the Power of Purpose podcast.

Brendan O’Shannassy’s book ‘Superyacht Captain: Life and Leadership in the World’s Most Incredible Industry’ is available here.

29 September 2022 our blog , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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