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Leadership on the high seas

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

On the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, the captain’s cool head, long experience and clear sense of duty—along with some luck—saved the ship from pirates off Africa’s east coast.

“It never ends like this,” says Richard Phillips, the captain who gave himself as a hostage and spent five days captive in a lifeboat before his rescue by Navy SEALs.

To understand why it did end so well for Phillips and his crew, you have to go back to his days as a seaman learning by example that deeds count, not words. That respect counts, not yelling. That you never show fear.

“By the time I got my captain’s license in 1990,” he says, “I’d seen the good, the bad and the really bad. I wanted to be the kind of captain I’d loved serving under.”

He’s obsessed with doing things right.

“I felt that if you did the job right, if you let people be themselves and cracked down only when they blew an assignment, then morale would take care of itself. You have to show people that you deserve the respect that goes along with the title ‘captain.’ You can’t browbeat them into looking up to you.”

Lifeboat of the Maersk Alabama, after capture.jpg
The lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama is hoisted aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer to be processed for evidence.

Phillips acknowledges that he’s tough to work for.

“So if you’re lazy or just plain bad at your job, I’m going to be a nightmare for you. But if you’re on top of your duties, I’ll leave you alone,” he says. He trains his men relentlessly to handle worst-case scenarios.

Phillips cuts this seriousness with humor. One of his favorite lines: “We are in search of excellence, but oh, we will accept so much less.”

One of his hardest workers gave Phillips the best compliment ever. “You know, you are a pain in the ass, but I know what you’re going to say before you say it,” his boatswain told him, meaning he’s consistent.

And the key: “My motto became ‘We are all here for the ship. The ship isn’t here for us.’ … And there was an unspoken part of that saying that I kept to myself: ‘The captain is here for the crew.’”

That the captain comes last isn’t just a line in a movie, Phillips says: “It’s your duty.”

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

Official U.S. Naval photos: Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces off the coast of Somalia, April 12, 2009. The lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama being hoisted aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer to be processed for evidence.

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