All Hands on Deck

My wife and I sat in the family room, watching a recent episode of Deadliest Catch.  At this particular moment, the focus is on the Cornelia Marie the boat formerly run by Captain Phil Harris, who died several seasons ago.  Since that time, the Cornelia Marie had been off-camera, without owner or without anyone to serve as her captain.  Phil was survived by two sons, who were both taken in by the other captains in the fleet to teach them what it would take to run their father’s boat.  As the seasons passed, the younger son decided he wasn’t cut out to run a crab boat, and left.  The elder son, Josh crewed on the other boats, and then in a surprise this season, came back into the picture as the new “owner” of the Cornelia Marie.  Josh was far from ready to run the operation, so he hired Captain Casey McManus to run the boat, and teach him what he’d need to know to take over the wheelhouse in the future.  Throughout the season, we’ve watched Casey and Josh together in the wheelhouse, taking turns at running the boat.  A week or two before this, the fishing hadn’t been so hot for the Cornelia.  Time was running out on opie season, and in order to help hit their quota, Josh volunteered to join the rest of the crew on deck.

As our episode opens, Josh is down on  deck with the crew, sorting crab, and building camaraderie with the guys.  The crew is in the process of retrieving a string of 100 borrowed crab pots (the frame & net boxes that are used for catching the crab).  These pots were borrowed from another ship, and they’ve reached the point where the other captain wants his equipment back.  So rather than going back to port, and offloading the pots to a dock for the other boat to pick up, they agree to set the string of pots back in the water so the other captain can just sail by and pick them up — along with whatever crab manage to crawl in.

Crab fishing is a lot like other forms of fishing, in that it requires the use of bait to attract your prey.  The standard bait pack is a bag full of frozen, chopped fish pieces suspended inside the pot.  To really draw in the crab, the crews will bring out the big guns: a whole codfish dangling next to the bag.  The cod is considered the ‘good bait’.  It is unclear who made the decision to do so, but the crew of the Cornelia Marie, with their boat owner on deck have decided to bait the borrowed pots with only the frozen fish-bits for the return string.  “We aren’t going to ‘waste’ the good bait on someone else’s pots.”  So one-by-one, the pots on the string are retrieved, the crab inside are sorted and dropped in the holding tank, a new sack of fish bits is placed inside, and the pot is dropped back in the water.

So while this is going on, Captain Casey gets a phone call from the captain of the boat they borrowed the pots from.  “Good News!  We won’t need those pots back for another couple of days, so feel free to keep using them.”  This takes a load off Casey’s mind.  Hitting that quota without the borrowed pots would have been challenging.  Casey looks down on deck, sees the bait that is going into the pots, and realizes the crew is now short-baiting their own catch.  He picks up the hailer, “Hey guys, can you start putting some Cod in those Pots?”

The crew members look up, and give him a quizzical look.  “Why would we do that?”, they ask each other, and Josh nods in agreement.  The next couple of pots come up, are emptied, short-baited, and dropped over the side.

Casey looks down at the deck again, and notices that the pots are still going in without the good stuff.  So he grabs the hailer again, “Hey!  I thought I told you to put Cod in those Pots!  Use the Cod, guys.”  The crew looks up at the wheelhouse again, and shake their heads.  “Why is he asking us to waste the good bait?” Casey then calls down to the owner, “Josh!”.  Josh kind of looks up, put his hand to his ear, and with a big grin on his face, pantomimes that he can’t hear what Casey is saying.  The crew eats it up.  Spirits are high.  They load up another bag of bits, and toss the pot over the side.

Suddenly Captain Casey throttles the boat back to station-keeping, grabs his jacket off the rack and double-times it down to the deck.

“It’s his own fault”, Becky says next to me.  “He didn’t tell them why.”

I paused the TV (thank you, DVR technology!)  “Do you think so?”

“Well yeah.  He’s not telling them why they need to put the good bait in.  All he had to do was explain why,” she insisted.

“Okay, I can see your point.  But he is captain of the ship.  He shouldn’t have to explain the orders he gives.  If a huge wave is crashing over the bow, and he calls out, ‘HOLD ON!” or “HIT THE DECK”, they need to do it without him explaining why.”

“Well, yeah.  But this isn’t an emergency, he could have explained that they’re keeping the pots.”

Agreeing to disagree, I hit Play and we resume the program.   Casey storms out onto deck, and starts yelling at the deck boss.  “What the hell are you doing?  I told you guys to put cod in the pots!  Three times I told you!”

The deck boss points at Josh.  “He said not to.”

So Casey whirls on Josh.  “And what’s with the ‘I can’t hear’ crap?”

Josh, replies, “Well with the block running, it’s hard to hear….”

“Bullshit.  The block wasn’t running.  You know how I know it wasn’t running?  Because the pot was in the cradle.  All right.  Team meeting.  Everyone inside.”

Becky gestures wildly at the TV and cries out, “THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!”

Feeling like I’ve lived this situation, I responded, “Don’t you see, though?  There is no clear line of command here.  Captain in the wheelhouse.  Owner on deck.  Deck boss deciding which he wants to listen to, and the crew following his lead.”

Casey reads the crew the riot act.  “I don’t care what you think.  I’m captain of this boat, and when I issue an order you need to follow it immediately without question, or someone could get hurt.”  As he is ranting, you can see the various crewmen rolling their eyes.  They don’t care what he’s saying.

I paused the TV again.

“Ah.  I get it now.”


“Five levels of Leadership.”  I respond, falling into my Agile Coach persona, “He’s at Level 1 with them.  He has Position.  He is “Captain”.  But he does not have Level 2, Permission.  They don’t respect his authority.”

Becky looked at the screen, “I can see why.  I mean Josh is down on deck with the crew.”

“Exactly.  Josh is at Level 2.  He is Owner, which has it’s implicit authority, plus he has been working side-by-side with them.  Given the situation, his leadership level exceeds Casey’s.  But it’s setting up a dangerous situation.  Casey is still Captain.  The thing is, he is experienced.  He knows what he’s doing.  He needs to prove that to them.”

We resume viewing.  Josh and the crew file back out onto deck.  The deck hands are clearly griping about Captain Casey’s lecture.  And they practically come right out and say, “Who is this guy, that he thinks he can tell us what to do?”

Casey looked at the body language on deck, and picked up the hailer again, “Josh, can you come up to the wheelhouse, please?”

Josh comes up to the wheelhouse, and Casey hands over the helm to him.  He grabs his jacket and a pair of gloves and goes down to the deck.  As he strides out on deck, he walks past the stunned crewmen, walks to the block, grabs the hook, and shoots it expertly over the side to snag the next buoy, then pulls in the rope, wraps it over the block, and directs the tail into the coiler.  Then as the pot comes over the side, and is dumps its contents onto the sorting table, he dives in with both hands, quickly sorting through the catch.  For the next few pots, he works with the crew, switching from one station to the next, demonstrating his expertise at each job.  Over the next few minutes, the crew brightens up, and starts working with him.

Josh looked down from the wheelhouse, then picked up the hailer.  “Hey Casey, you need to have a life-jacket on, man.”

Casey looks up at him, then pointedly ignores the call.  He continues to work with block.

Josh, repeats his call, “Casey!  Put on a life-jacket.  You can’t be out there without one.”

Casey looks up, and with a big grin on his face, puts his hand up to his ear and shakes his head, “I can’t hear!”

Josh nods his head as the lesson hits home.

Casey finishes the next pot, then takes a bow and walks back toward the wheelhouse while his crew applauds him.

I looked at Becky with a big grin on my face.  “Level 3.”  I said.

“What’s Level 3?”

“Level 3 is Production.”  I said, “Not only does he have the title.  Not only has he proven he knows what he’s doing, but he has shown he can do it better than they can, and now they know that by following his lead, they will perform better than if they do not.”

I love when I find metaphors for business in my entertainment.

For small businesses, it is important to avoid falling prey to titles.  In a small business, as on a crab boat, the number of hands you have is limited.  It doesn’t matter what title appears on your business card, or in your signature file, at some point, everyone needs to be willing and able to go down on deck and lend a hand.  And when that happens, the lines of authority still need to be maintained.  You can’t have your owners and captains stepping on each other, or on the team.


Author: Michael Marchi

Michael Marchi CSM, CSPO, SA4 Co-Founder and Board Member @ APLN Chicago ( Manager, Management Consulting / Chicago Agile Practice Lead / Agile Coach & Trainer @ Strive Consulting (