Knock It Off: Lessons In Leadership From ‘The Deadliest Catch’


December 18, 2009

With the holiday season in full swing, the HR Ringleader needs to take a few extra moments channeling Santa Claus.  I still want to share some great stories, so over the next week, I may throw in a story or two from my blog archives- especially since these stories will be new to many of you.  And, I’ll still write some new content too.

Today I’m sharing a post I ran last April.  Hope you enjoy it and, if you do, throw your “no nonsense” lessons for managers in the comments!


Have you ever watched the show Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel?  Well, I typically do not, but it is on in my house quite often thanks to a hubby who thinks crab fishermen are fascinating.  This week there was a new episode, the second of this season apparently.  The show chronicles the tough job being a crab fisherman on the Bering Sea.  There’s freezing weather, huge wave swells, and working for days on end with little or no breaks.  The positions are quite lucrative though.dc11

As I watched the intense moments of a crab fisherman’s days and nights, I started to look at it with my HR glasses on.  You take several boats with crews of seven or so of the roughest, toughest men around….well, at least the ones who are not the greenhorns (rookies).  Put those men in a boat with the horrible conditions as they are trying to do a job that is physically exhausting, and the HR issues explode.

Here’s an example.  They show a scene on the boat the Time Bandit, where one fisherman was angry that a fellow crewmate was being lazy.  Fisher-guy #1 was yelling at fisher-guy #2 saying that he was so far ahead of him in his work.  He started screaming at fisher-guy #2 for not taking him seriously and for not working as quickly as he should.  This argument went on several minutes with fisher-guy #2 laughing it off.  Finally, Captain Johnathan Hillstrand comes over the loud speaker and tells them to KNOCK IT OFF.  Plain and simple.  Fight over.  Employees back to work.dc21

Wouldn’t it be nice if more leaders took this approach.  Direct and no-nonsense.  Too often, HR professionals work with managers who know their employees have issues, but they are not willing to address them.  They hide and let it go on.  From dressing inappropriately at work to ethical issues and the rainbow in between, wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a manager who addressed issues head on.  Every time.  Maybe when people are promoted to manager we should give them each a loud speaker.

So, who’s with me for telling people like it is?


  • Trisha! YES! Great article. I think a lot of people who are in leadership roles tip toe around addressing real issues in the workplace. I have worked on management teams where another mgr was asked to handle a corrective action issue, and he actually said, You are better at this. You do it. hmmm…
    Step up to the plate, and Lead, and Manage. Just Do It!

  • In the past when I have been asked if I want to manage people I have said I didn’t feel like I had the right skills. When that person looks at me bewildered I have always used this example.
    A staff member comes into my office complaining about “Suzie” and I listen patiently till the end then say “OK, well, I suggest that you go back to your desk and do some f-ing work”
    So minus any swearing and mean tone, maybe I have management skills afterall!

    • @Shennee- Maybe all new managers should get steel toed boots when promoted so there’s no tip toeing.

      @Heidi- LOVE your comment. With my official “HR Hat” on I guess you’d need some coaching with that approach, but I must admit, you’d get much less whining than other managers would. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Great read Trish. In the restaurant world we have more of the direct approach, but unfortunately we end up with more HR issues due to that approach. Managers are more like Fisher-guy #1. The challenge is to catch them doing something right, then when you have to address the wrong you have built credibility. True leaders are the ones that do not need the loud speaker.

  • Enjoy yourself and your family. I’ll be taking a very well needed – and deserved – week off too. Let’s catch up in the new year, if not sooner.

  • Well said Trish! Too often HR gets called in to mediate interpersonal conflict between employees. I’ve heard “but it takes on a whole new level if HR is there!” way too many times. We all work with people we don’t particularly care for or get along with at some point in our careers. And we all need to act like adults and just deal with it. If you as a manager don’t have the guts (or the skills) to tell people to suck it up and act like adults, then perhaps you shouldn’t be a manager. It’s not my job as an HR pro to do that for you…I can coach and guide you, but I’m not doing your dirty work. The sooner we can learn how to tactfully redirect, the sooner we’re on our way to moving from the “HR Police” to strategic contributors.

  • A couple things. First, the captain of the boat is the final, and I mean final, authority. Whatever he/she says goes whether you like it or not. Second, there are no lawyers or other ‘concerned’ resources trying to intervene and make things all better. In short, it works because lives (and livings) are at stake and it’s a no BS environment.

    Keep watching the show, I think you’ll like it. There are different styles of captains to be sure, but they all understand what’s at stake and don’t take crap from anybody.

  • You don’t have to be a captain in the Bering Sea to deal with these situations. They play out in companies big and small (like ours) every day.

    For two decades I was the nice indirect skim over captain. It’ll all work itself out, right?

    But in the past few years when I finally learned to talk straight and be direct, there’s a new-found employee respect (well, not with everyone) and the workplace dynamics change dramatically, usually for the better – improved communication, improved problem-solving, increased productivity, etc.

    Being direct and making it clear that you are responsible for you is where it’s at. Amen pass the bullhorn.

    Merry Christmas.

    • @Kevin- You bring up a good point. When you are straight with people (even without a bullhorn) you will earn their respect. Even when they don’t necessarily like the message, they will respect your honesty. Thanks for the comments.

      @Barry- First, hello friend! Good to hear from you. You hit on the fact that even though there are several different captains, they still “don’t take crap from anybody.” So true!

      @Jennifer- Jenny, love how you call it “tactfully redirecting”. That is a buzz phrase I may have to adopt more in 2010.

      @Lisa- My sweet friend, thank you and hope you have a wonderful break.

      @Michael- I’m sure you see a ton of these situations in the restaurant business. I’d love to hear how some of those play out and what techniques you use to redirect. Thanks for the comment.

  • I love the story. A number of points came to mind when I read your article. It seems that the whole issue of trust comes to mind. It is not a surprise (?) to read that Covey in his book “The speed of Trust” says we are at the worst of times when it comes to followers lacking trust in their leaders.
    There has also to be a ‘sensible balance” allowing co-workers to let “steam off”
    Rather then a loudspeaker, we need that apparently rare commodity of common sense and developing relationship skills and the ability to gain respect. HR? Their role is to better understand the intangibles and translate those into finding fish!

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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