Leadership Secrets of Deadliest Catch

Time Bandit in heavy seas

I am one of millions of Americans who love the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch. For those of you who are not familiar with it, it’s a show about Bering Sea Crab fishermen. It follows five boats over two fishing seasons a year (King Crab and Opies). It is a show about a grueling, heart-breaking, back-breaking, fraught and dangerous life perched on the icy deck of a lonely boat on the southern edges of the arctic.

On my bad days, I watch it to remind myself of how good I have it. Most of the time, though, I watch it to keep me company while I do the laundry. I did about 5 hours of laundry in the last four days, and finished up through season 7. Now, I work in software. You can hardly get farther from the Bering Sea than my comfy cube in Boston’s “Innovation District”. But I still think there are some true leadership secrets buried in the ice up there.

1) Find your Freddie and keep him forever

Freddie Maughtai of the FV Cornelia Marie (now on the Wizard)

Every group of people wishes they had a Freddie. He’s always early on deck. Once there, he moves with quickness, alacrity and skill. I’ve never seen him slip and fall, and I’ve never seen him dawdle. He knows his job, and he does it well. Just that much makes Freddie a good deck hand (and anyone who’s watched the show knows that being a good deck hand is really hard to do.) What makes Freddie a great deck hand is what he does for morale. He never complains, at all. He rarely makes a negative comment, even when it’s blowing ice and -10 degrees and he hasn’t slept in 23 hours. But best of all, he can and does turn the morale of an entire boat. Freddie never talks about *bad* luck, but after hauling a string of empty crab pots, he’ll pull out the ol’ clippers and give everyone a good-luck mohawk, or smear his face with cod blood (he’s Samoan) and convince the whole crew that the next string is going to be better. Most of the time it even works. Freddie not only is the best, he brings the best out in others.

Freddie was also a byword for loyalty… right up until he could no longer afford to stay on the Cornelia Marie. Even with his huge heart and deep love for the Harris family, he still needed to make a rational decision to earn more money on the Wizard. And of course, with his tremendous skills, practically every boat on the Bering Sea was open to him.

Leader Lesson: If you find a person who is not only great themselves, but makes the others around them work harder and better, consider them one of your greatest assets – and treat them like it. Make sure you never stomp on their optimism or cheer. Make sure you give them enough latitude to work their wonders. And make sure you never pit their loyalty to you against their good sense.

Worker Lesson: The difference between good and great isn’t how much you can accomplish. You can’t be great unless your team works better because of your participation in it. That means less whining, less following negative energy trends, and less doing-what-everyone else does. Instead, try to change the tenor of a negative team to be more positive (even if that means giving yourself a mohawk), and try to build on the energy of a positive team. Of course, none of that counts for squat if you can’t get the basics of your own job done.

2) Buy fireworks ahead of time

Fireworks for Captain Phil
Fireworks for Captain Phil

In the Season 7 finale, the boys on the Time Bandit are coming into Dutch Harbor flush with victory – their ship totally crammed with fine-looking crabs. After they got Captain Sig Hanson “good” earlier (in a prank that involved having imported Chinese lanterns and sending them out over sea and turning out their lights – scaring the pants off our favorite wily Norwegian), Sig ambushed the boys with fireworks. (I must say, it’s kind of fun to watch people do something downright dangerous and inadvisable and not be told even once not to try this at home.) The Time Bandit returned fire. After a bit, both ships turned their fireworks skyward for an amazing display of pyrotechnics outside of Dutch Harbor.

Now, you could say this was a waste of money. Fireworks are expensive. And if the ship wasn’t full, what was there to celebrate? And if the ship was full, then surely just giving the guys wads of cash was enough celebration, right? But no. The very best of the fishing vessels on the Bering PLAN TO CELEBRATE SUCCESS. They buy those fireworks and bring them to the edge of Alaska at no small expense. The chance to earn tens of thousands of dollars are the reason that those fishermen work through injury, pain, cold, danger and sea-cooking… but adding a joyful celebration of success makes it about more than just the money. It creates a sense of pride, of joy, of celebration and of cameraderie that sets a boat apart. It makes the crew not folks employed in the fishing industry, but fishermen.

Leader Lesson: If you want your crew to treat their job as more than a financial transaction for cash, then don’t just reward your crew with cash. Plan on celebrating their successes in ways that are exhilarating, communal and right as they cross a finish line. If you can work in a method of celebration that would not be possible anywhere else in the world, it’s a bonus.

Worker Lesson: Life is much more rewarding when you work for a company that sees the works you are all engaged in as more than a financial transaction. Of course it is that (See Freddie above), but you spend too much of your life there to put up with a workplace that only has a paycheck to offer.

3) Pick a good captain

Captain Phil, the Hillstrand Brothers and Captain Sig Hanson

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the captains in Deadliest Catch. I think half of America still misses Phil Harris – his earthly, twinkle-in-the-eye wisdom, kindness, temper and vices. Sig Hanson is a manipulative, masochistic jerk… who still keeps his crew safe and his tanks stacked. Keith of the Wizard is a good Captain with good intentions, a gigantic chip on his shoulder and a completely out-of-control temper who gets his crew a full year’s salary in two months work. The Hillstrand brothers share a wheelhouse (although only one of them is ever captain in a particular season). There are a bevy of others: Wild Bill, Elliot…

And I’ve thought a lot about who I would want to work for, in the completely impossible outcome that I was forced to fish the Bering Sea.

Again – there’s that difference between sheer moolah and what it means to work. Those top captains will bring home similar paydays, between $30 and $70k for a fishing season. But if you work for Sig, you can expect to “grind” (work exceptionally long hours), be belittled and mocked, and to fear the anger of the captain. Although he offers a great payday, I don’t think I could handle working for Sig. (In the unlikely event that, you know, I could hack the other parts of the fishing.) Keith would drive me crazy – he’s too mercurial.

If I had to pick a boat, I would definitely pick the Time Bandit. In addition to being excellent fishermen who consistently earn greaty paydays for their crew, the Hillstrand brothers are smart about risking their crew’s well-being. They have a gift for morale, too. In situations where the other captains would explode at their crews, with yelling and puffing and pulling rank… the Hillstrand brothers will pull a prank or a joke that works 1000 times better. There’s nothing like throwing a string of firecrackers on deck to wake up a lethargic crew! They also do a great of job of celebrating their ship and their crew. And having two of them means that they have a backup plan and make better decisions.

Leader Lesson: It’s not JUST about the outcomes you create, it’s also about the experience your team has in their work. Given the same money, most people would rather work for a reasonable boss who solves problems in ways other than yelling.

4) Bring passion

The would-be captain

No one who has watched the show for more than an episode could doubt one thing: Jake Anderson has a fire in his belly to become a fisherman, and to some day captain his own boat. From the first episode, while he was still a greenhorn, he was angling to be driving the boat. He’s worked his rear end off every single episode to attempt to earn that right. His relations got him ON the boat, but he has no capital, no inheritance, no education…. nothing that would ever get him into that captain’s chair other than his own burning passion.

I believe that Jake will make it someday for one primary reason: he wants it so badly, and so clearly. He asks Sig practically every episode to push him further, to show him more, to teach him. He asked for the difficult task of steering a multi-million dollar boat into St. Paul Harbor, risking not just the ship but the lives of those on board if he messes up. How many of us would be brave enough to ask to do that? And Sig, after about 8 rethinks, lets him. And he does a fine job: showing himself as material for that chair eventually. Sig gets him up after only 2 hours sleep following a 30 hour shift. Instead of complaining bitterly (which is what I would do), Jake says happily, “It says a lot, that he thought of me.” If your bosses know how badly you want it, that helps. If you keep volunteering to do hard things in pursuit of a goal, that helps more. If you don’t complain about the hard work it takes to get your goal, that helps most.

Of course, it also helps that Jake knows so clearly what he wants.

Leader Lesson: If you have someone who brings this kind of passion to mastering their business, adopt them and make them like your own child. Give them hard tasks (but ones they can accomplish). And promote them for their excellence.

Worker Lesson: Figure out what it is you want. Let your bosses know what that thing is. Remind them regularly. Ask to do the things that role will require. Get any certifications you would require. And be persistent. When you do finally get the chance – even if it’s at 2 am after a 30 hour shift – feel proud. Don’t complain.

This is probably the one I have the most work to do on.

Edit: In case you’re waiting with bated breath, the 2013 Deadliest Catch season starts April 16th, 2013 – Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel. Put it on your calendar!

51 thoughts on “Leadership Secrets of Deadliest Catch

  1. What an absolutely awesome article! You (the writer) have payed amazing amounts of attention to Deadliest Catch, and spent a lot of time in deep thought about what you’re watching. All of what you have written is brilliant writing, but what you wrote about Freddie is ‘the’ perfect description of him, and his work ethics, and what he does for any crew/Capt. he works with/for. A truly great read! Thank You!


  2. You know, I thought about writing a blog like this one time and then I thought I was the only one who thought like this. Apparently not. Then again, I thought maybe I was just envious of their HR policies.

    The 1st point is absolutely spot on. Freddie’s are hard to find and when you do find them….hold on to them for dear life. One caviot to this that I have had happen….sometimes their heads will get too big and you will lose them. You need to find the perfect balance of giving them slack, but keeping them reigned in….very tough to do.

    2nd point- Celebrating is so hard in all organizations and we need to do it more. I saw the Time Bandit have seasons where they weren’t at the top, but they still celebrated and had fun. Learn lessons from bad times and still celebrate the good stuff.

    3rd point- All these Captains have chips on their shoulders and would be tough to work for. I don’t want to emulate any of their behavior in a business world, however it make good TV and works with these tough guys.

    4th- Yes, those who hunger to learn and grow are hard to find and you need to find ways to incorporate this into your daily work. This guy has great desire to learn even if he isn’t gifted….how many of these people do we have? But that fire can’t be taught and when you find it, fan the flames.

    Overall, thanks for a great article. Well thought out with awesome points. I will certainly pass this on to other’s in my realm. And I do like the HR policies on the Bering Sea…LOL. Thanks.


  3. Nice piece. Well written and very thoughtful.

    Yes, anybody would be lucky to a have a “Freddie” on their team. That’s why Keith snapped him up. If you really care about folks then you want them to move on if it’s in their best interest and you can’t provide them with what they need. That was the case with Freddie.
    You might enjoy the last piece I wrote on the CM Blog – similar sentiment.
    I will share your post on our FB page so others can enjoy.


      1. The Cornelia Marie and Deadliest Catch fans really are the best in the world. I would like to guest post this article on corneliamarie.com. Let me know – you can email me at morgan at corneliamarie.com. Thanks!


  4. While your perceptions and conclusions are drawn from the people’s appearances on TV, and a few of these I know also “off tv” I agree with your observations of those traits you have gleaned from the show. My family is a commercial fishing family, and my 23 year old son is captaining our boat, while his 52-year old father is working the deck. Now if you don’t think that brings a crazy dynamic into management, you don’t know men and father/son angst! LOL 🙂 Commercial fishing and life aboard a boat brings a tremendous set of challenges and unique issues, but I would completely agree that almost every leader can appear to be “sporting a chip” on their shoulders, when in fact they have learned the hard way to set their sails. Good way to use the show to emphasize good and bad work ethics! 🙂


    1. It is hard to know what the reality is when you’re watching tv. I know that what I see is edited – but I’m glad to hear I’m not totally off base!

      It would definitely take a special personality to work the Bering Sea.


  5. Wonderful! Love the Deadliest Catch, and all those guys, and have never missed an episode. It gives an added dimension to ordering crab in a restaurant, too. I now never fail to say “don’t forget to say a prayer for the fisherman”.🙂


  6. Hey ! At the top of this page, to the left of the Fishing vessel TIMEBANDIT’s photo, you have some tags listed. Just so you are aware and in an attempt to help you actually look like you know what you’re talking about and who you are talking about, it is the “HILLSTRAND” brothers . NOT the HILLSTROM brothers. WTF??


  7. Absolutely a great article I feel the same way of hard work and the dedication of not only the deckhands but the captains. They all have the very hardest job in the world….I LOVE DEADLIEST CATCH can’t wait for the net season to start.


  8. What a great way to put things in perspective. I am a fan of the show and now a fan of yours. Thank you for the thoughtful analysis. In early April I have an All Staff meeting. As the General Manager I always try and do some kind of motivational talk. I always struggle the week before trying to come up with the concept that I want to bring to them. You have given me the perfect concept to work with. I hope you don’t mind, but I just can’t imagine a better way to put these ideas in fron of them.

    Thank you.


  9. Great message and well written. I think you ought to trademark ‘Buy your fireworks early’ it says so much. It would be great on Tees and etc, right up there with ‘Life is Good’
    . Thank you,


  10. Thank you for making me cry at little … at the immense loss of Phil (who I think about often) who touched so many lives. At the spot-on descriptions you gave on leadership and passion and hard work and the pure, unadulterated love for fishing for crab in the Bering Sea. At the very obvious respect you have for all the men on all boats who navigate such deadly seas. My tears are for the pride we all have for these men and for the exceptional article you wrote. Thank you and lots of hugs.🙂


  11. When I think about what makes for good leadership, I’m reminded of something that Major Richard Winters, who commanded a WWII regiment of the 101st Airborne (made famous by “Band of Brothers”), said frequently in his book: lead from the front.

    The captains that you mention have done every job there is to do on a crab boat, and done all of them well. They don’t ask anything of their crew that they haven’t done themselves. When things are nasty, they share the risks. This is something that’s all too lacking in the white collar world. Too often, highly-paid executives manage people whose work they know nothing about, and only rarely do they stand to lose as much as their employees when their projects fail. As a result, their leadership is hampered by lack of understanding and lack of mutual respect.

    If you want to be a good leader, you need to be able to walk in the shoes of those you command. If you want to spot a good leader, look for the one who shares the risks, not just the credit. Lead from the front.


    1. Two reasons:
      1) I actually tried to find a synopsis of the income for each ship, and amazingly the internet failed me. I am sure that it’s out there somewhere, but not exactly where. Therefore, I was only remembering generalities, and didn’t realize the disparity was quite all that!
      2) Because I wouldn’t be successful working for Sig. It doesn’t matter how much money you would make if you _were_ successful, if you are in an environment where you won’t be successful. Now, I really couldn’t hack the Bering Sea no matter what, but if we pretend I could, I would want to work on a team where I would be successful and not wash out. I think Sig would break me!


  12. Thankyou for the wonderful story. I would like toadd ,I wish they would bring Deadliest Catch back to Discovery Channel. I miss the boats ans brave men who work so hard. I miss Captain Phil Harris. may he rest in peace, also wishing good luck to Josh and Jake Harris. and May you all have a very Happy New Year to all.


  13. Wow! Just Wow…I love these men. Thank you so much for putting into words what I feel with each new episode. Phil and those two boys/men, we’ve watched them grow up haven’t we, will always have a place in my heart. I can’t see an episode where Phil is shown with out tearing up. Thanks for bearing your heart and reminding us that role models come in all forms and these men are true blue models of what it means to work hard, play hard, love hard and live life to the fullest. Living in Washington so close to my favorite captains has had it’s perks! I got to see first hand greatness in the making…<3


  14. Well said on each and every subject you touched on. Chills ran up and down as I continued to read. Been a “Serious”Deadiest Catch fan from day 1 and cried~got hecka angry with the guys~laughed till my sides ached~cheered them on~been on the edge of the couch more than once. Freddie and Jake are just 2 of the guys that represent these one of a kind fishermen. No better attitude or passion is found like Jake & Freddie! We are given just a glimpse of what really happens on these ships but what we are shown blows us out of the water. Respect for them all is in the highest of all ranks. I related to these guys from day one~was brought up to do your job right the first time so you won’t have to go back and do it again~don’t complain no matter what is asked of you~didn’t matter if you were sick,had a broken limb,or just didn’t feel good you were expected to do your job and do it the best all the way around.Only the best of the best are found on each and every one of these ships,doesn’t take the guys long to spot if a greenhorn is gonna make it or not.Come on now how many times have they been wrong on this.Leaders are hard to come by takes one heck of a soul to do what Sig & all the captains are well known for~Passion for their job and their men. Phil is my favorite captain~Cornelia Marie was my ship and my boys were well my boys~I cried so hard the morning the news was broadcasted as I was getting ready for work. I pray for Josh and Jake they are fine young men.Phil did a fine job raising them to be fishermen.
    No matter how each captain runs his ship~Respect in the highest goes to each and everyone of them~they are family to each other~
    So I thank you each and every captain and crew member on each and every ship~You risk your lives so others may have food on their table~You all do your job which includes Jack of all trades~You do this well above and beyond what is ever expected of you. I’m proud of ALL of you guys.Grown to love the dickins otta ya all too.
    May the wind always be at your back and you sail calm seas~but when the storm starts to rage you face it head on.
    Thank you for writing such an amazing article about something so many of us dare to think of doing as a job. These guys don’t even think twice. They just shut up and go fishin’!


  15. I thoroughly enjoyed your article – thank you for making my day! I too would pick the Time Bandit, when I watch the show with my boyfriend, I am team Time Bandit and he is Team Norwestern.

    Just makes me want to race home & watch more episodes!


  16. What a wonderful article. “CAPT PHIL” was my favorite, and now “FREDDIE” is, and “Jake” is next. God bless all of these men who make us take a second look at our lives and realize we have it made, and shoud learn some of life’s lessons from them.i am . Waiting waiting, waiting…………….for the next season to begin. Deadliest Catch is my favorite program, and if anything were to happen to it, I woud toss me TV out the window. RIP “CAPT. PHIL”.


  17. This is one of the best articles on leadership I’ve read in a long time. It’s been shared throughout the office already. Nice job!


  18. I def have to give thumbs up for this wonderful article. It was so well written, and I love how you have analyzed it.
    I still miss Captain Phil, to me he was the best. The love he had for the sea, the ship and crew, and not to forget, his kids! I caught a rerun of the episode where he looses the fight, and still I cried my eyes out.
    I live in Denmark, far far away from the Bering Sea, but I feel like I know these guys! I know it a show, but still, seing them fight for their life day after day, kinda put life in perspective, don´t you think??
    I really like Captain Sig and the Hillstrand brothers. I know that Sig is hard on his crew, but one bad deckhand, can get them all killed. I get why he´s like that, and I would def work for him.
    I think it´s cool that you wrote this article about our boys, if nothing more, then to let them know that they have fans, who follow them every chance they get.


  19. DC is my absolute fav show, never missed an episode since day 1. i would fish crab in a second if given the chance. love your article…i do believe Wild Bill is also an excellent capt with 30+ yrs experience and a good man, Elliott on the other hand i would never step on any boat he was capt of, hes much too negative, risks his crews lives and on the Bering sea your mind should always be on the task at hand not wandering elsewhere, again terrific read ,thank you.


  20. Wow what an awesome article/blog! I totally enjoyed it!! I just loved DC back when Phil was alive…kinda quit watching after he passed. Yep I’d go to work for Hilstrand brothers!


  21. What a great article. I hope you are getting paid for your writing abilities, because they are awesome. Spot on and mirrored my impressions of the characters on the show. Cannot wait for April 2013’s next season premiere!


    1. Val, thanks for the kind words! I write for the love of writing, although I do also have to write a lot in my job.

      I’m looking forward to the next season a lot!


  22. I’ve been employed in the maritime industry (on the water) for over 30 years. You have no idea how right you are in all your points, spot on. Sadly many people don’t get it. I’ve seen far more success stories of young men who’ve been encouraged along the way and rewarded for their efforts…much like young Jake… as compared to men (and women) who’ve been chastised for doing something stupid or wrong or simply teased…and then gave up eventually. I’ve seen many “Freddies” and those guys are worth their weight in gold. Again, sadly their are too few of them. Thanks for the great blog. Great comments!


    1. I think that whether you’re fishing, writing code or have a PhD, it’s better to encourage and support than criticize and tear down.

      Thanks for your kind comments!


  23. Great show, the producers & camera crew try to catch all the angles to show the viewers life aboard a commercial crabber/ catcher I worked on a 130′ crabber/catcher for 10 years in the early 1980’s to the early 1990’s when there were a lot more competition & you could crab fish year long what they do not show you is as interesting to me as much they do show you & I say this to all young men looking for adventure head to Alaska do what ever you can to get on a crabbing boat & once you landed on a boat you will have the adventure of a life time & if life takes you some place else for adventure you can look back & remember life is an adventure get out there & find yours, take it from me I’ve been there & done that & I’m headed forward to my next adventure with great memories of friends I made along the way & the rolling & thunder of the Bering sea.


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