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Deadliest Catch - authentic leadership at its best!

I love watching the Deadliest Catch on TV. The high stakes and anticipation of watching highly skilled fishermen, battling with nature to catch huge crabs in the Bering Sea, is fascinating.

But the programme is much more than that. It also serves as a good medium to observe the skills of leadership, and what makes a good leader.

In series 14, episode 15, the crews are battling against huge waves and tidal forces brought on by a Supermoon and the effect it has on the seas. As you watch their struggle and bravery, you begin to realise how important it is to have good and strong leadership in situations where people are under immense stress.

One boat, The Summer Bay, has a particularly traumatic experience when the crew are hauling in baskets to see whether they have managed to catch the crab. One of the crew is pulled over the side of the boat, into 30-foot waves, as the rope gets caught in the tidal swell and the rope is pulled under violently. The effect on the crew is traumatic and the adrenaline and fear is high. The leadership of the captain of the ship is particularly crucial during the two minutes it takes for the crew member top go into the water, to the time they manage to pull him out. Every second is critical as the risk to life is high, not just from drowning, but also for the freezing water. Captain Will Bill’s calmness and direct orders are what eventually saves the life of the young man who falls into the sea as his instructions cause the other crew members to act, rather than freeze from shock. However, the captain is left shaken and disturbed by the events.

The crew of the ship are obviously shaken and rally round to support each other. But the captain is unable to let go of what might have been and is affected deeply by the responsibility he has for his team. As an experienced captain, he recognises the decision he has made to stay out fishing in such perilous waters could have cost the life of one of his team. He takes time to speak to every man individually and is open about his emotions and the effect the incident has had on him. This allows the team to respond and support him, whilst also increasing the sense of camaraderie and trust within the wider team.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for leaders to be authentic and honest about their own emotional reactions to stress and traumatic situations. For Wild Bill, the Captain of the Summer Bay, allowing himself to be vulnerable and honest with his crew ensures a relationship built on honesty, validity, and trust.

Within the same episode, Sig, a straight talking and ‘seen it all’ Captain of the Northwestern, is also trying to navigate the Supermoon tidal waves in his quest to bring in a good haul. Despite all his experience and his confidence, he makes the decision to steer the boat in a particular way as the waves rise dramatically in front of him. This decision causes the boat to lurch dramatically to one side, and whilst one of his crew fights to pull up the 800-pound pot full of crab, a huge 25-foot wave lashes over the side of the boat. This causes the crew member on deck to lose his footing, and almost go over the side of the boat. Sig, the captain, recognises that he made the wrong decision in steering the ship, caused by a lack of concentration in the moment. Rather than ignore his mistake and brave it out in front of his crew, he openly admits his error and apologises to both the affected crew member and the wider team.

Whilst Sig is a difficult man, and can be abrasive and challenging, he is respected by all of the men on the boat. His ability to be humble and show vulnerability to his crew when he makes a mistake, is one of the reasons he has the trust of his team.

So, what can we learn from both examples? Despite both captains leading in very stressful and highly charged situations, open to error and possibly fatal repercussions at any moment, they are authentic in their leadership regardless of the extremely male dominated environment in which they lead. They demonstrate an honesty and humility and recognise the importance of showing their own vulnerability in their leadership, when their teams need them to show a human side. Equally, they have the strength of character to make difficult decisions, despite huge challenges, ensuring that their teams are confident in their leadership ability. The sense of camaraderie, trust, and honesty which both captains are able to create, along with the strength to admit when the wrong call is made, demonstrates the importance of authentic and honest leadership.

How often are we open to showing our vulnerability to our teams? How often are we authentic in being courageous enough to show when we are feeling insecure or are troubled by the decisions we must make? Being authentic is not a weakness. It is through building the trust, camaraderie and honesty within our teams that true leadership is able to flourish.

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