Pirating Some Lessons in Leadership

With Oscar season fast approaching, one of the big contenders garnering tons of buzz in the best picture category is Captain Phillips. This film tells the based-on-a-true story of a cargo ship, Somali pirates, and a 2009 hijacking. While this combination of elements in and of itself certainly provides a draw, another one of the film’s highlights can be traced to Tom Hanks’ riveting portrayal of Captain Richard Phillips. Although the Academy might not agree, as Hanks was snubbed for an acting nomination, the film provides us with numerous real-life lessons in leadership. Note: since this is a true story and is well documented, I’ll cut right to the chase and get the spoilers out of the way: the ship gets taken hostage, Phillips leads his ship and crew through the ordeal, and the Somalis get captured or killed in the end.

Now with that out of the way, it should be said that while it’s true (at least I hope it’s true) that most organizational leaders will never have to face the kinds of difficult circumstances that Phillips did, if you unpack the leadership skills that were demonstrated throughout the film, there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn.

  1. Using your Training – Through a combination of experience and training, having the necessary skills to do your job effectively is of great importance. While not every situation can be planned for, with a solid base-level knowledge of what to look for, what to do, and how to react, you can extrapolate into a variety of situations. Phillips had a good handle on policies, protocols, procedures, and commands, which ultimately served him and his crew well.
  2. Having a Plan – In high-stress times, it’s important for leaders to remain calm under pressure and set a course of action that will allow their teams to successfully weather impending storms. Phillips was very deliberate in his decisions, making moves only after thinking through the repercussions of each of his options.
  3. Trusting your People – When sitting at the helm, it’s very important to fully empower those below you to do what they’ve been taught. While being held at gunpoint under a constant barrage of pirate orders to summon his people to the deck, Phillips was confident in his crew’s ability to remember their training. He put on appearances, got on the loudspeaker, and summoned them all; it was no surprise to him when none came forward – they didn’t hear the safe word they had been taught.
  4. Making Hard Decisions – Making and committing to bold decisions is an especially crucial responsibility for a good leader. Leaders need to gather all available information, analyze options quickly, and make and clearly communicate tough decisions. One of the most potent displays of this leadership skill came not from Phillips, but from the Navy SEALs deployed to save him. “Stop the tow. Execute.” was the chilling yet explicit command given to the SEALs by their leader, right before three simultaneous bullets took down Phillips’ captors.

Though there are conflicting accounts on the internet as to the accuracy of Captain Richard Phillips’ portrayal, what’s undeniable is that the tenets of organizational leadership were very much in play throughout the film. A strong commitment to one’s people, a high level of preparedness, an overwhelming sense of responsibility, and a selfless resolve can serve all leaders – regardless of industry – particularly well as they navigate the rough seas of their respective worlds.