Lead Like a Pirate

Daniel Eb
Daniel Eb
Oct 9, 2018 · 5 min read

Why pirates pioneered modern HR and team leadership.

History lessons can hide in unusual places.

We remember pirates as bloodthirsty looters who terrorized the trade routes of empires in the 17th and 18th centuries. Popular history recalls pirate captains as ruthless leaders, holding their men together with an autocratic iron first and cruel discipline.

In An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization, Professor Peter Leeson offers a dramatic revision of the life of pirates and their leaders. Despite their mission of high seas thievery and murder, Leeson suggests pirates were, in many ways, the pioneers of modern HR — capable of building high performing organisations based on trust, transparency and team-work that outdo even today’s teams and companies.

A PIRATE’S LIFE

The majority of pirates started out as ordinary merchant seamen and Leeson introduces the owner-captain-crew model to explain their position in the top-down organisational hierarchy.

Ships were usually funded by a group of merchant owners who would hire a captain as their representative on board. A captain was generally offered a share in the voyage’s profits and bestowed with sweeping powers over the crew to ensure the safe passage of goods. Powers ranged from food rationing to docking pay and punishment for infractions. The majority of these arrangements worked fine, but it’s easy to see how the autocratic, top-down, complete control a captain enjoyed could easily be turned to his benefit or allow for mistreatment of his crew. Ultimate power corrupts ultimately after all…

Leeson makes a compelling argument that many sailors were driven to piracy — either through mutiny or voluntary capture — by extreme cruelty or unfair treatment like withheld rations & pay… desperate men forced to do desperate things.

In sharp contrast to this top-down management style, pirate crews were surprisingly egalitarian and democratic. With no owner or owner representatives to serve, daily life and goals were aligned only to the crew’s interests.

A ship always needs a captain and pirate ships were no different. Elected through popular vote, captains were empowered to act autocratically during battle alone. In quieter times, decision making responsibility was passed to a similarly elected quartermaster. Arguably the more challenging role, the quartermaster was responsible for allocating provisions, settling disputes, distributing loot and administering discipline. Power on a pirate ship was shared and ultimately rested with crew who could depose and elect new leaders at will.

Tying the crew and it’s leaders together was a ship’s constitution. Agreed rules and guidelines dictating everything from election processes, prize shares, ship rules (no gambling, fighting or woman allowed on board & pistols/cutlasses to be kept clean to name a few), punishments, bravery bonuses, even insurance payouts for injuries (the loss of a right arm would fetch pieces 600 pieces of eight, an eye only 100). The depth of these binding constitutions is staggering. Every new pirate understood their rights and responsibilities to each other from the outset. How many organisations today can say the same thing?

LESSONS FOR LEADERS

1. Pirates leave captains, not ships

Imagine the kind of day-after-day cruelty from a captain that would drive a rational person to take-up a life of piracy. Leeson’s work reminds us that loyalty is earned, not given. It’s up to managers to keep their people, not for their people to stay. Predatory behaviour, bullying, unfair workloads, withheld entitlements can be enough to push away the very people your business depends on.

2. Quartermasters and Captains

HR professor Hayagreeva Rao talks about star and guardian tasks. Star tasks are the strategic decisions to that win battles, increase production or diversify a business model. Guardian tasks are the unglamorous operational jobs, just as important but often overlooked — getting hot meals to the crew, making sure the office fridge is always stocked, the first aid kit is on-hand and the team are payed on time.

Star and Guardian tasks are best owned by separate people. The army does this particularly well in it’s command team relationship between officers and non-commission officers. Officers call the plays to the achieve the tasks and non-coms (sergeants and the like) represent and administer the troops. The same system is at work in corporations — the CEO calls the strategic shots and the COO runs the departments that keep the machine humming.

Realistically, this separation of responsibilities is hard to achieve in a small business, but a team needs both styles of leadership to function at it’s best. Maybe that’s an arranged time each week for an open forum with the team to discuss operational issues like pay, conditions, grievances, safety issues. Or it’s simply putting aside time for regular employee reviews where the focus is on training, personal issues and problems. Guardian tasks are easy to overlook but critical at maintaining team unity.

3. Clarity

A constitution is not a contract. A contract describes the relationship between employer and employee. Instead, a constitution represents the team’s commitment to a shared mission and each other. It is the operating procedures, the agreed standards, the rules and penalties that grease every interaction. They can’t be applied by management, they need to come from the bottom-up.

In his outstanding book Turn the Ship Around, US Navy submarine captain David Marquet talks about how his crew set about rewriting the ships procedural manuals to better align with their own management style, together.

In a similar way, the pirate constitution made clear what it meant to be a pirate — your responsibilities to captain and crew, your fair dues when prizes were won, your agreed punishments when the rules were broken. In the words of one historian, the constitution was written “for the better conservation of their society and doing justice to one another”.

Does your business have an agreed set of rules co-written together? What happens if a team member misses a shift — is there an agreed penalty or is up to the manager to dispense justice as they deem fit? How do you decide who gets bonuses? What constitutes bullying and how does the team define letting down your mates?

More often that not, issues arise because of a lack of clarity and miscommunication. Pirates knew that and agreed from the start on systems, checks and balances that would guide the team through the tough times. Can you say the same?

Daniel Eb

Written by

Daniel Eb

Kiwi farm boy. Let’s talk social justice, digital comms, food and future.

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