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Use questions to teach vital skills

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Just six days before the now-famous hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, Captain Richard Phillips held a surprise security drill aboard his ship. He wanted to test his crew’s ability to defend against a pirate attack.

To maximize the drill’s impact, Phillips treated it seriously. He confided in his chief mate that the drill was going to occur in a few hours. “We’re ready,” the chief mate replied. “Let’s …”

“Don’t tell me what you’re going to do,” Phillips interrupted. “Let’s just see how we perform.”

Phillips knew that the best gauge of readiness would be to watch his team react in real time. He set the drill in motion by announcing, “There’s a boat coming along, starboard side. Four men, with weapons, acting hostile.”

When he noticed a seaman standing around, Phillips asked, “What are you supposed to do?”

The seaman didn’t know, so the captain gave terse instructions.

Then Phillips tested his third mate, asking him for the “nonduress password” (which alerts a crew member inside a locked door that the mate on the other side doesn’t have a gun to his head).

“Mr. Jones,” the mate replied.

“Wrong,” Phillips said. The third mate had used a password designed for a different situation, so Phillips corrected him.

At every stage of the drill, the captain approached his crew and posed questions such as, “Which doors did you close?” and “Where’ve you been?”

Afterward, Phillips met with his team and analyzed their performance. Rather than highlight what they did wrong, he sought to confirm they understood what to do in case of attack.

— Adapted from A Captain’s Duty, Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, Hyperion.

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