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Leadership lessons for the military from the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch TV series

Posted by John Reed on

Deadliest Catch, not to be confused with Ocean’s Deadliest, the series that was filming when Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray, is a weekly TV reality series about Alaskan opilio crab fishermen now in its third season.

It began as a single documentary about what they described as the most dangerous job in America. It is about eight crabbing boats and their crews fishing for opilio crab in the freezing waters and harsh weather north of the Aleutian Islands near the Bering Strait.

What the military claims to be
The Deadliest Catch crews are what the U.S. military claims to be, but generally is not. They are competent men, plus some rookies whose competence is yet to be learned and demonstrated. They face extreme danger for weeks at a time. Men die and get what the military calls “wounded” and disabled. They work extremely hard and are bone weary from doing so. It is mostly physical work. They must work as a team. They have a couple of leaders: the boat captain and the guy in charge of the deck operations.

See my other articles on:

whether there is any such thing as military expertise
• so-called ‘elite’ military units like the rangers or airborne
military medals
• process- versus results oriented managers
famed on-time, under-budget contractor C.C.Myers
our recent wars should be run by lieutenants and captains
is military integrity a contradiction in terms?
the U.S. military’s marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament OR How America selects its generals
• is the U.S. military as good at producing leaders as it claims?

Results-oriented entrepreneurs
The crab fishermen are also what I hold up as the iconic, best examples of competent men:

• entrepreneurs, not government bureaucrats
• results oriented—they get paid by the crab, not for punching a clock or looking the part or talking a good game
• well led by men who all have different personalities and leadership styles
• brave, but not awarding or wearing any medals
• judged entirely by their performance, not but their degrees, appearance, or what tickets they’ve gotten punched

Not winning recent wars
It is the military’s job to win our wars. They have not won one since 1945 other than Desert Storm where the enemy behaved in a way that our enemies have not behaved since Korea—sat in easily visible trenches out in the open wearing uniforms—and are not likely to do again. Our military has not figured out how to win wars where the bad guys rely on hit-and-run type operations and either pretend to be innocent civilians or hide in the jungle. Consequently, that’s about the only kind of war we will have to fight in the foreseeable future.

It is the crab fishermen’s job to catch crabs. They get the job done. They have to. They only get paid if they do. They only keep their jobs if they perform well enough for the team to succeed. The boat owners only keep their boats and businesses if they choose and lead their teams and operate their equipment effectively.

Look at what they do NOT do
You learn the leadership lessons from Deadliest Catch best if you focus on the things that the military does that the Alaskan crab fishermen do not. They crab guys do not:

• wear uniforms
• salute the captain or deck boss
• call the captain or deck boss “sir”
• award or wear medals
• march in parades
• get trained in special schools
• look the part other than by coincidence
• use leaders or men assigned to them by some bureaucrat thousands of miles away from the crab fishing areas
• get paid by the hour
• keep their opinions that are contrary to the captains’s secret from him
• kiss ass
• get free medical care for life
• get a pension
• fill out forms in quintuplicate
• say “it’s not my job” when something needs to be done and is not happening
• wear badges or any other indicators of rank
• get paid and retained for decades in spite of doing a lousy job
• get paid and allowed to keep their boat and business if they don’t catch crabs
• allow their equipment to deteriorate to “deadlined” condition
• get promoted on the basis of efficiency reports or the current theories of far-away promotion board members
• have a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to endlessly spend in spite of not catching many crabs year after year
• routinely sign false documents or lie to each other
• get transferred to another state or continent or sent to yet another school on average once a year during their careers

If the Navy fished for crab
And if the catching of crab in the Bering Sea were done by the U.S. military, they almost certainly would do something like the following:

• require 80 ships instead of 8
• use ships that were at least three times as big
• use ships that cost 20 times as much—partly because they were built with components from every Congressional district, especially the districts of senior Senators who were on the Armed Forces Committee or senior Congressmen who were on the Armed Services Committee
• use crews that were three times as big and whose main activity was going on sick call
• have new captains who had never been on a crab boat before every year or so on each ship
• hardly catch any crabs
• give daily briefings on how much progress they were making toward catching crabs in the future
• and Alaskan crab would cost $200 a pound at your local grocery

If anyone in the U.S. Navy doubts this, I have a suggestion for them. Pick your best eight guys or whatever it takes to staff a crab boat. Rent a boat and put them on it for a season of the Deadliest Catch, which is a contest to see who can catch the most crab for the season. I’ll bet they come in last and make fools of themselves. What’s worse, I’ll bet that many of the actual Alaskan crab fisherman are military veterans. The problem is not the raw human material coming into the Navy compared to the raw human material coming into the crab fishing business, it is the incentives, or lack thereof, in the Navy, not the people. Although the longer a person stays in the military, the more he turns into a bureaucrat. I doubt long-term career military people could succeed on a crab boat. Whatever work ethic and results orientation they originally had would have been washed out of them by the years in the bureaucracy.

See my Web article on process-oriented people (bureaucrats) and results-oriented people like the Alaskan crab fishermen.

Study the leadership and teamwork, but mostly the incentives
They should be studying the videos of Deadliest Catch at the service academies and elsewhere in the U.S. military. But more importantly, those who are at the top of the civilian leadership of the military should look at the incentives and organizational structure of the crab fishing industry and mimic that in the military. The details of how the crab boats are configured and the personnel and teamwork and the rest all follow from the combination of the incentives and human nature. The same is true of the military. Their chronic ineptness and sloth follow from their incentives and human nature. And now, from 50 years of the same, from their habits.

Former Navy SEAL
On one episode of Deadliest Catch, their “greenhorn” (new guy) was a former “elite” Navy SEAL. He was unable or unwilling to work for much of the trip—on a boat where they have no spare employees, so the others had to do his job when he could not or would not. The crew did not like him at all and he was fired or quit during or at the end of the trip. He is not necessarily representative of all SEALs, but as far as I know no other SEALs have appeared in the Deadliest Catch series, so they are stuck with him as their only representative.

I am a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran. My brief military bio is at my military home page,

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