How 15th century sailors’ work songs can help make us better leaders today

In a recent trip to a maritime museum, I had the opportunity to help raise a ship’s sails while singing sea shanties—15th century shipboard working songs—with a crew and all of a sudden I had a revelation.

As 10 other people and I were belting out sea shanties while hard at work, I instantly saw the value of our team singing. Within seconds, perfect strangers who had never worked together were all in sync. This got me wondering. How could we as leaders bring the benefits of sea shanties into the workplace?

Could we use the principles of these work songs to get our employees in rhythm and feel a slight relief of pressure from their day-to-day grind? The next day, the answer hit me. Good communication in the workplace is the sea shanty of the past.

Be visible and be heard

Sea shanties were effective because they were call-and-response songs (similar to military cadence calls). One person (the shantyman) would sing a line of the song (the call) and then all of the sailors would sing back with their response. As leaders, we are the shantymen and it is our responsibility to sing loud and proud. Our team members not only need us to be present, they also need to hear us. This means spending more time with our employees, clearly articulating our expectations and leading by example.

Vary your leadership approach

The shantyman had a very important role on the ship as he would decide what shanty to sing based off of the situation and task at hand. Different shanties had different rhythms, lengths, and purposes. Just like the shantyman, it is our job to pick the best tune and approach for our teams. We need to realize one communication style doesn’t fit all and that different situations call for different communication techniques.

It’s also important for us as leaders to create a healthy work-life balance. We should go to our employees’ desk just to say hi, send out an email to make our team smile or conduct a celebratory meeting to recognize a job well done.

Be adaptable

Many shanties had flexible lyrical forms that allowed the shantyman to practice improvisation should there be circumstances where they needed to lengthen or shorten songs. Just like the shantyman did, we too should feel comfortable veering off script. As leaders, we need to embrace change and keep our teams enthusiastically awaiting the unknown. We can accomplish this by taking risks, being creative and thinking outside the box.

Shanties gave sailors familiarity, focus and a consistent beat to march to (literally and figuratively). As a result, sea shanties successfully improved workers engagement and productivity for centuries. By effectively communicating with our teams, I am confident we too can accomplish these same results while also having a good time just as the sailors of the past did.

So, how will you bring the principles of sea shanties to your team?

Danielle Clark is a human resources manager with more than 10 years of HR and customer service experience in healthcare and retail organizations. Her work with Fortune 500 companies, in addition to a diverse professional and academic background, has trained Clark to be results-driven, people-focused and a thought-provoking leader. Her goal is to educate and inspire professionals to change their way of thinking. She is also an adjunct professor, active community volunteer, wife, mother and passionate lifelong learner.

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