O Captain, My Captain…what it is to have four stripes and command
When I first walked onto a rugby pitch I wanted to be Captain, when I first walked onto a ship I wanted to be Captain. What does it mean? Are you born that way, made or something in between? What is a Captain anyway?
Think of all the names for Captain…Skipper, Old (wo)Man, the boss, Sir, Ma’am, and probably many more which are not for a family-friendly article. There is so much caught up in the myth, the legend and the emotion of what it is to be called Captain, what it is to lead and to be followed.
Culture, literature, history, they are littered with great Captains, punctuated by awful ones too. We sure do hold Captains to our hearts. Think Kirk, Bligh, Blackbeard, Scott of the Antarctic, John Smith, Anne Bonny and Jack Sparrow of course.
We are captivated by four gold stripes, and the romance of leadership, dedication and commitments. The drama of the struggle to ensure that every decision is a good one, and every follower does their duty and is kept safe while doing so.
It is obvious that these ideals come from history, where the glory of explorers, raiders, pirates, the Royal Navy and exploits across the seas were part of the myth and legend of Empire.
IF YOU KNOW YOUR HISTORY
In Latin “capitaneus” meant chief, while the term master is descended from the Latin “magister navis”. Used during the imperial Roman age to designate the person entrusted with the care of an entire ship.
This was the ultimate authority on board a vessel, and the magister navis had the right to wear laurels onboard. Even today in some nations, the shipmaster may wear golden laurel leaves or golden oak leaves on the visor of his cap.
Even further back in time, the Ancient Greeks looked to their captains to deliver trade, to drive the nation forward through feats of bravery, skill in navigation and the willingness to go farther, faster and more fearlessly than the competition.
So, for millennia, the Captain has been master of all they survey — the focal point of law onboard, with the power of life, happiness, death or misery over all onboard. The captain at the helm, literally and metaphorically.
CAPTAINS AND CULTURE
Those who have seen Dead Poet’s Society will have heard the cries of “Captain, My Captain” as the kids stick with their leader, Robin Williams’ in his inspirational teacher role.
The quote was from “O Captain! My Captain!” a poem written by Walt Whitman in 1865 about the death of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman sees the US as a ship of State, and Lincoln, yes you guessed it, is the Captain and he has managed to get them back to port safely.
It’s not just history and literature where the term Captain figures. We have long revered “Captains of industry” — the people who lead huge companies to success, generating vast riches into the bargain. Think Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Mellon, Henry Ford, Stanford and Rockefeller.
The idea of a Captain is about strength, leadership, vision, a reassuring and wise presence, but one which wields power and can be quite a scary figure too. We revere Captains, perhaps as much as any other title. It is certainly a debate fit for a ship’s bar or tavern ashore.
What about today, what about businesses and in shipping companies, and still out there on ships. Does the Captain still have the cachet it used to? It is a bit less dramatic nowadays, but still, it’s not hard to be moved by the weight of history and the importance of the role and weight of responsibility.
In the modern maritime world, things have changed in many respects. One is the relationship between being a master and a captain in the Merchant Navy. You qualify through exams and sea time to the level of master. It is only by taking actual command of a vessel that you can be termed “captain”.
Put simply a captain will always be a master mariner. While a master mariner may not yet be a captain. The honorary title is the pinnacle, reached by climbing the difficult deck ladder of certificates of competency, and then being elevated to command.
While Captain is a rank in the Armed Forces, in the Merchant Navy it is a courtesy title. One that brings with it professional respect and recognition, one that is proudly held and jealously guarded.
CAPTAIN OF THIS SHIP
So, what about me? Well, it’s a long time since I donned my gold epaulettes and struck equal parts awe and fear into junior ranks as I strutted across a bridge wing. Today, my role in the maritime industry is as a business leader, aspiring to be one of those Captains of industry — though more a Jobs or Musk, rather than the Victorian robber barons.
The lessons of leadership, of noble commitment to a cause still ring true. Like Lincoln being the captain of the ship of State, being the boss ashore does come with great responsibility and still some degree of power too.
Being in charge means different things to different people, those at the top and below. A business owner perhaps is naturally assumed to be a leader. It doesn’t always naturally follow though. That is where the rationale of a Captain is so important.
A Captain knows the crew, understands the value of the cargo and the business demands to get where you are meant to go, knows that the weather can change and all can be lost or won by making the right decisions. Knowing that a company is like a ship, that by demonstrating knowledge, skill, courage, leadership and a sense of compassionate strength, then then the most can be wrought from the people, the vessel and the realities which surround them all.
So, I would urge any boss to think like a Captain, and I would urge anyone in a business to understand the pressures and stresses that those leading face. Also, that everyone should look up to the Captain, not just in reverence but in an ambitious way — one day we should all want to be Captain, and we should all strive to get there. The key for every Captain is also knowing when to leave the ship, and allowing the next master to step up.