This Saturday is the 30th anniversary of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Inspiration struck John Baur (Ol’ Chumbucket) and Mark Summers (Cap’n Slappy) of Oregon in 1985 when they proclaimed September 19 as the one day out of every year when people were encouraged to speak like pirates.
The idea, it seems, was simply to have a little fun, substituting seagoing phrases such as “Ahoy, matey” for “hello” and letting out the occasional “aaargh!”
Over the years, Baur and Summers have been quick to point out that pirates were and are bad people. “We aren’t suggesting,” they’ve said, “that real, honest-to-God pirates were in any way, shape or form worth emulating.”
And that’s exactly the point.
Because in every organization – yes, even yours – there are modern-day versions of pirates. And make no mistake: they are bad people.
Your pirates probably have the day off this Saturday, but they’ll return to the workplace Monday and when they do, they’ll be holding you, your colleagues and your culture hostage.
Pirates have been around as long as the seas have been sailed for commercial gain, with some accounts of piracy dating to the 14th century BC.
The Golden Age of Piracy is the period most of us think of when we think of pirates. This period spans the 1650s to the 1730s, and pirates like Blackbeard, William Kidd and Henry Morgan gained fame and fortune for their exploits of buccaneering as they plundered their way through the Caribbean, the eastern Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
In 1881, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island burned into the public’s imagination the romanticized image of pirates with tales of tropical islands, treasure maps marked with an “X,” the “Black Spot,” and Long John Silver, the one-legged pirate whose parrot perched on his shoulder.
Long John Silver is a complex character whom Stevenson describes as a hard-working and rather likeable seaman. As the story unfolds, however, the pirate’s villainous traits are gradually revealed.
So it goes with the pirates of today’s workplace environments. Their underlying malicious personality initially may be masked by an insincere charm and a track record of producing desired results. If you knew from the start they were pirates you would not have invited them onto your ship. Once on board, however, a pirate’s true character emerges.
I know this to be true because I once hired a pirate.
There were indications the person I considered hiring might not be a perfect cultural fit, but I chose to ignore those signs because it was clear this person would bring the energy and experience to the team my firm needed on two of our most important accounts. If there were any character flaws, I told myself, I could certainly fix them.
For the first several months it was smooth sailing.
The work this person’s team produced was stellar. Our clients appreciated the thinking, the creativity and the urgency. And we all loved the results that we were delivering.
But over time the winds shifted.
I began hearing that this star supervisor was really a scallywag in disguise. The people reporting to this supervisor were being subjected to verbal floggings on a regular basis.
As the reports became more frequent and the incidences more grievous, I suspected everyone in my firm believed one of three things about my ability as a leader:
All three conclusions being drawn about me and how I was handling this pirate were bad.
I now faced a dilemma of the kind other leaders have faced. What action would I take with a person who was terrorizing the staff while producing the results I expected?
Even pirates have a Code, though as the fictional Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean noted, “The Code is more like a set of guideline than rules.”
At the time, I failed to distinguish between guidelines, rules and policies.
Guidelines empower employees the discretion to make decisions outside normal operating procedures within certain boundaries, particularly if those actions help a customer or colleague.
Rules—for instance, a published 10% fee charge to a customer for a late payment—can be over-ridden, but not without the express permission of someone at a higher level.
Policies are non-negotiable and, when violated, are subject to immediate termination.
As the captain of my ship, I was also navigating treacherous waters without the compass points of core values. Core values—if they are indeed deemed valuable—provide a filter for leaders to use when making these types of tough decisions.
When your values are clear, the action you need to take when a core value is violated is equally clear. You may not like the decision, but the proper decision is crystal clear. If our firm had been operating from a written set of core values, my decision about this supervisor would have been clear: termination was warranted.
Without our own code of conduct, I instead turned to speaking repeatedly with the supervisor with the false hope the bad behavior being exhibited would change. No dice. Once a pirate, always a pirate.
So when the behavior did not change, I terminated the supervisor.
My phone calls to our clients who had never observed the supervisor’s rude behavior were difficult, but they affirmed my decision to terminate the supervisor.
Had I failed to take appropriate action, the people under the pirate’s command would have mutinied by ultimately leaving my company, and doing nothing would’ve undermined my credibility among the crew who knew all too well what was happening on my ship.
That’s why it’s important to be clear and specific about what constitutes successful performance in your organization.
My work delivering private workshops and leading strategic planning sessions exposes me to hundreds of business leaders each year. By my estimate, about three percent of an organization’s total employee population is comprised of pirates in the workplace.
They show up as employees who deliver results but don’t play by the rules. They say “yes” in meetings then work to undermine the very plans they have agreed to implement. They may get the job done, but it’s at the expense of those that work for and with them.
Every organization has a pirate. These workplace pirates don’t have peg legs, wear eye patches, or talk like a pirate, but they are exceedingly dangerous to organizations aspiring to nurture a high-performing culture.
It goes against a leader’s natural instincts to terminate an employee who’s getting the job done.
Yet failure to make the pirates on board your ship walk the plank places at risk the trust-based culture your organization must have to succeed.
Who are the pirates on your ship?
To dive even deeper into the topic of accountability, I invite you to purchase a copy of my bestselling book, “Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture.”
Business schools teach case studies. Hollywood blockbusters are inspired by true events.
Exceptional leaders are students of history. Decision-making comes with the territory.