Capt. Phillips offers leadership insightsNews added by Benefits Pro on April 10, 2014

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By Allen Greenberg

ORLANDO, Fla. – Capt. Richard Phillips, the merchant mariner whose cargo ship was seized by Somali pirates, said Wednesday he might never have survived the experience were it not for teamwork and some of the leadership skills he had picked up in his years as a “floating CEO.”

Among others, the most germane, if not classic, lessons of the experience, he said, is that people are often much stronger than they know, that the only time all is lost is when we choose to quit, and that a focused, professional team can overcome almost any problem.

Phillips’ ship, the Maersk Alabama, was boarded by a band of four Somalis in the Indian Ocean in March 2009. The story was made into a film last year.

Speaking on the second day of the Human Capital Summit and Expo, Phillips recalled that, after flying from the United States to join the vessel, he didn’t feel the crew was properly prepared for a security breach, especially given the level of pirate activity in the waters the Alabama was crossing. And so he ordered an emergency safety drill.

“I always told my crew it was a matter of when, not if,” Phillips said. “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

The drill revealed some problems. Members of the crew didn’t know the signal for a pirate attack, doors weren’t locked. “We tried to get everyone on the same page,” Phillips said. “A few days later, everyone was happy we had planned for the worst.”

His training, Philips said, didn’t include dodging bullets.

“But somewhere within us we find strength to do what must be done,” he said.

It was the first act of piracy against a U.S. vessel in 200 years.

Phillips said he felt the best way to protect his crew was to get the pirates off the ship as soon as he could. That’s why he risked his life by entering into the ship’s lifeboat with the pirates, in hopes of engineering some sort of exchange for his release. Phillips was held hostage for five days and eventually rescued by a team of Navy SEALs.

His decision to join the pirate on the lifeboat, he said, underscored the importance of stopping to question personal training and judgment to ascertain the best course of action.

The time he spent as a hostage, he said, also illustrated the importance of flexibility and not panicking. Even when the situation wheeled out of control, Phillips and his crew were able to adjust, he said.

“I realized I never prayed for rescue, but for strength to never give up," Phillips said. "For as long as you don’t give up, there’s still a chance."

Phillips noted that he developed relationships with the pirates, despite the fact that they threatened him and played mind-games with him, including repeatedly pretending to execute him and telling him that his family wouldn’t miss him when he was killed.

“One pirate told me that when we got to Somalia, we’d go to the movies and he’d introduce me to his girlfriend’s mom.”

“Of course, the real heroes are the Navy seals,” he said near the close of his presentation. “We are all riding on ever-shifting waves and so we’re all better off facing these challenges as a team, rather than alone.”

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