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!