The SS Rotterdam is the largest passenger vessel ever built in the Netherlands. Between 1957 and 1971, the ship transported passengers from Rotterdam to New York and back for Holland-Amerika-Lijn.In 1971, the Rotterdam became a cruise liner, operating around the globe.For decades, the ship and its crew of approx. 780 were commanded by Commodore De Jong –a man who made an astonishing impression as a leader, as I recently discovered.
I was recently in Amsterdam to visit an old friend. We had met in the Bermudas in the early 1980s as we were crossing the Atlantic on our way to the Azores – in his case, as the skipper of the ‘Sandetty’, and in mine, together with my father on the ‘Marina’.
In Amsterdam, my friend told me that he was one of Commodore De Jong’s sons and suggested traveling to Rotterdam in order to have lunch on the SS Rotterdam. The ship is permanently moored at a pier and harbor as a museum and restaurant ship.
From the moment we set foot on deck until we said farewell a few hours later, we were welcomed, guided, educated and seen off by various older gentlemen on board. These very friendly uniformed gentlemen were all over: on every deck, in every hallway and at various information points. They directed visitors, provided guidance and delightedly talked about their experiences on board, often with shining eyes and a wistful smile.
These guides were Commodore De Jong’s former crew members. Most were working for no pay or only a nominal salary – all out of loyalty to “their” captain, identification with “their” ship and, no doubt, a sense of longing for days gone by.
I was impressed by how passionate these older men felt about what they were doing. What made them feel so connected to their ship, fellow crew members and (deceased) skipper after so many years?Why did the commodore’s leadership inspire this degree of identification? What did he do differently than others?
I recently related this story to several business coaching clients. I invited them to engage in a thought experiment:Imagine that your employees are 70 or 80 years old and have been retired for several years now.What will they remember from your leadership? What will they have learned, looking back? To what extent will you have contributed to their personal and professional development?
How will you have inspired them?