Pirates, Life Rafts, and Leading in Crisis: 7 Leadership Lessons from Captain Phillips

*The inspiration for this post comes from the movie “Captain Phillips” and not the actual actions of Captain Richard Phillips who’s real life actions are a matter of some dispute and an obligatory lawsuit that naturally accompanies someone making a lot of money off a story and others not.  

I know I’m late to the game when it comes to commenting on the genius of the 2013 movie Captain Phillips staring Tom Hanks and Barkad Abdi, but this movie has captured my leadership imagination like few others. Captain Phillips is the extraordinary true story of Captain Richard Phillips, and his harrowing tale of survival after the ship we was captaining was taken over by Somali pirates.  I’ve never captained a ship, and I’ve never been captured by pirates, but like any leader I’ve found myself in leadership situations in which for the moment at least, being captured by pirates would have seemed like sweet relief. All leaders face crisis.  All leaders face seemingly impossible situations, yet what we do in those tight places sets strong leaders apart.  In the movie we see seven critical responses that all leaders who find themselves in impossible situations need to remember.

Don’t allow the crisis to distract you from your daily obligations. When crisis comes as it inevitably does, there is a tendency to neglect the day-to-day responsibilities of leadership and summon all one’s energy to meet the crisis of the moment.  The problem is that by neglecting daily responsibilities, we are often simply creating additional crises on top of the new one. Instead, leaders must identify the new crisis, maintain progress toward previously defined organizational objectives, while looking for opportunities to re-prioritize objectives that will allow the organization to meet the needs of both the urgent and the ongoing. Captain Phillips identified the potential problem of the approaching pirates, began adjusting his speed and course, and re-prioritized the need for a pre-scheduled fire drill, which put his team in position to meet the growing threat.

When you don’t know what to do, take the next logical step. In moments of crisis we often face the temptation of “analysis paralysis.”  Captain Phillips found himself and his crew defenseless in the face of impending doom, but rather than panic he took the next logical steps. Prepare for the worst, pray for the best, and act in the moment.  Phillips’ seemingly insignificant actions, which ranged from faking a conversation with the Navy to increasing speed and creating a large wake, actually made the difference between survival and failure.  Your actions now will prepare the way for success later.

Take responsibility for those you are leading. We are responsible for those we lead. As the pirate takeover became inevitable, Phillips immediately put himself between his crew and the threat.  In the movie version of the story, we see Captain Phillips routinely put himself at risk to preserve his crew.  He knew where responsibility lay and claimed it. It is easy to shift the blame for success and failure to those farther down the chain, but leaders who thrive in adversity understand where the buck stops and embrace it. Leaders take responsibility for outcomes and leaders take responsibility for the best interest of those they serve. Taking responsibility doesn’t necessarily mean falling on the sword.  Sometimes a responsible leader has to make tough decisions that are best for the organization and in the long-term best interest of the individual, but in the short run are painful and seem uncaring.  Shirking necessary decisions is not leadership, is not responsible, and is not loving.

Stay calm and look for a way out. Embracing responsibility doesn’t mean accepting failure as inevitable.  There is always a way out.  As the situation grew more and more bleak, Captain Phillips maintained his composure and maintained his wits. Time after time windows of opportunity for escape were lost, but he kept looking for his opening. Leaders face crises with humility and clarity.  You can’t think clearly when you are stressed out, worn out, and defeated.  Take time to pray, rest, refresh yourself and keep going.

Don’t forget the human touch. Crisis always brings change and change can be painful. The movie’s last scene captures this reality perfectly.  Leaders know this from experience.There is a temptation in the midst of crisis to protect yourself from the pain by detaching yourself from the human element of the situation.  Captain Phillips instead embraced the humanity of his crew and his captors. In the midst of assault even, he looked to build bridges of humanity that played a role in his deliverance. Don’t give in to the temptation of dehumanizing others by reducing them to flat characters with simplistic motives.  Whether you are in a legal battle, a downsizing situation, a hostile corporate takeover, or are literally a hostage, remember the humanity and value of the people you are working with (or against).

Extend the narrative. Jerry Rogovoy wrote it best, “Time is on my side.” Now play it again in your head, but this time in a Mick Jagger voice, and it will stick.  Captain Phillips understood what all hostage survivalists teach—stay alive.  Organizationally that may at times feel worse than death.  There are times when the pressure of trying to keep a dying organization alive may feel unendurable, but extending the narrative allows you more time to understand the situation, regroup, revision, and relaunch.

Don’t give up hope.  The hardest thing to do is to keep going when hope is lost.  Where I live in northern Wisconsin, we are in the midst of the coldest, longest winter in memory. It is the end of March and the calendar says Spring, but it’s snowing outside and was 23 degrees this morning. It feels like Spring will never come, but I know that I am one day closer to Summer than I was yesterday. The snow will melt, the thermometer will rise, and I will feel the sun again.  Captain Phillips was able to survive and lead his crew to safety because despite what he felt, he didn’t lose hope.  Leaders must be courageously hopeful pointing the way to a better future.



About Scott Dunford

Lead Church Planter at Redeemer Church of Silicon Valley and Director of West Coast Mobilization for ABWE International.
This entry was posted in Christian Life, Leadership and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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