“O Captain, my captain”

by Michael on July 13, 2010

Tonight on Discovery Channel a 3 year odyssey for me will come to an emotional end as fans of the Deadliest Catch will say goodbye to Cornelia Marie Captain Phil Harris. I find this show fascinating for many reasons. The number one reason I find this show so interesting is the unique culture that exists on each ship. Each captain has their own leadership style which establishes the culture on board. I believe that there are many lessons that can be learned by corporate America from each of the ships vessels, specifically on building a culture and the importance of proactive workforce planning.

Building a culture on the Bering Sea: 

Each of the ships featured on the show is depicted as a character on the show with each ship displaying separate cultures. In general the ships can best be described below:

Cornelia Marie: A very familial environment. Not only does Captain Phil have his two sons on the ship (more on that in future post), but he has had many of the same crew members for years. His leadership style is most often depicted as more mild mannered and the crew is most often seen as working hard but in a looser environment. Lots of practical joking and good natured “ribbing” take place on board. Phil is portrayed as one of the “good guys” of the sea on the show and seems genuinely well liked and respected by all other fleet captains. When asked to grind through the tough times they do it out of respect for Captain Phil who they view has their best interest at heart. By displaying sincere empathy  for his staff they view him as a respected leader. In corporate America they would be viewed as an employer of choice.

Time Bandit: They remind me of a fraternity house of the sea. They are definitely seen as the loosest environment there is. The only thing missing from their ship is Blutarsky from Animal House. This crew is constantly joking around, and that starts at the top. Capt. John known for his maniacal laughs and “yeah boys” keep the crew upbeat and smiling while they grind threw their fishing gear. In fact, their culture is so unique that guys prefer to fish on their boat even it means making less money. That is the surest sign of a great culture! As Captains both John and his brother Andy have done a wonderful job building a culture where guys truly seem to love each other and what they do. When they needed to make an important decision in the past regarding getting rid of a crew member they did it based on who was most detrimental to the culture, not based on who necessarily had the most talent. Would your organization place cultural fit over talent? They did.

Northwestern: This is authoritarian dictatorship in its purest form. Capt Sig Hansen has perhaps the most demanding workforce of the sea. He works his crew harder than any other with the payoff being work harder, get paid more money. He has definitely created an atmosphere where it’s the employees on one side and Sig on the other. This leadership style has created a bond within the crew who might not approve of everything Sig tells them but know they are all in it together. Sig has become a popular figure on the show for his work them to the bone mentality and frequent tirades. However, in today’s corporate world I don’t think Sig’s antics would be well received. While its important to be cognizant of the bottom line, I’m reminded by what Ken Blanchard recently said “profit is the applause from treating your employees right.”

Wizard:  Capt Keith. is portrayed as the bad guy of the group. In previous seasons he has had run-ins with Capt Phil. and this season with Capt. John. As such, the Wizard has experienced significant turnover season after season. The culture on his ship can be characterized as dispassionate. The guys on his crew work hard to get the job done, get their money, and get off the ship. They seem to lack the good nature that exists on many of the other ships. I believe this is because they view their Captain as a dictator who does not do anything to show sincere appreciation towards his crew. Things never seem to be done well enough to his liking and as a leader when things are good he takes the credit, and when they are bad he often blames the crew for mistakes. As a leader that’s an absolute no-no and is what leads to the higher turnover that ultimately cripples an organization. On the bering sea you may be able to survive with high turnover but you won’t in corporate America.

Thursday, I’ll discuss how workforce planning has played an integral role on all of these ships. In the meantime, ask yourself which ship and captain most characterizes your organization’s culture and leadership style.

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