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Weathering Calm and Stormy Seas: Leadership Tips From Captain Phillips

02/27/2015 06:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

Captain Richard Phillips became a household name when Tom Hanks portrayed him in the highly acclaimed movie about the hijacking by Somali pirates of the U.S. Maersk Alabama. It was the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in more than 200 hundred years.

The story is based on true events that unfolded in early April 2009, when four armed Somalis seized the 508 foot ship. For five days, the world watched as the ship and its captain and crew became the center of an incredible international drama. Captain Phillips retold his story to a crowd of 500 students at Fairfield University, many of whom braved single digit temperatures to hear him speak. The title of the lecture is "Steering Your Ship Through Rough Waters: Lessons on Leadership from Captain Phillips." Everyone sat on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes listening as he explained how he had to make decisions quickly, calmly and efficiently as the leader of the vessel. Phillips has a gruff likability and explained to students that the hijacking taught him about his own personal strength. In his deep Boston accent he told students, "You will be confronted with stormy seas in your careers or personal life. You are stronger than you know" - a theme he continued to reinforce.

The U.S Maersk Alabama had an unarmed crew of just 20 sailors and was transporting food from the United Nations World food program that was intended for several African countries. The American ship looked like a million dollar vessel to the Somalis who were able to get on board and off their small boat. While much of the crew was in lockdown in different parts of the ship, the Captain was able to keep himself, his crew and his ship together even as his world had become violently undone. Just as Rudy Giuliani led New York City after the dark days of September 11, 2001, Captain Phillips steered his crew to safety after five days of unfathomable horror and in front of an international audience. Educators and business leaders often say that overcoming such odds in the face of adversity is the mark of a great leader.

After serving 22 years as a Captain at sea and 35 years in the business, the now retired Phillips is now sailing into new waters: Motivational speaker focused on leadership skills.

Phillips spoke to the students about "why" and 'how" he survived and explained that these tips will help anyone when confronted with "stormy seas." Here are some of Captain Phillips tips on leadership.

1. You are stronger than you know.
2. As a leader, hope for the best but plan for the worst. On the day before the hijacking, the crew had just practiced drills in the event they were attacked by pirates and came up with code words.
3. One crazy idea will make someone else think of a new idea.
4. Be flexible. Every voyage is different.
5. When you vow not to quit, it is amazing what happens. Much to the amazement of students, Captain Phillips explained how he was forced off the U.S Maersk Alabama at gunpoint and spent five days in a boat with barely any food or water and temperatures of 100 degrees. "It was like being in a sauna," he said. "But I never quit."
6. Leaders must remain calm. Don't let emotions get in the way. "You can't persevere when you are panicked."
7. In tough and changing times, you must unite as a team.
8. Critique your successes and failures after any voyage.
9. Honesty. Your employees are a reflection of you. If you make honest and ethical decisions, your crew will follow. Have a well-trained and committed crew where there is always mutual respect for one another even though you may not see eye to eye.
10. A captain must be dedicated to his crew and his crew must be motivated by strength, kindness, and respect. There is never room on board any vessel for harsh or unkind remarks. It will separate the crew. Morale is linked to productivity.

Following his speech, many of the students asked questions including, "Do you have any desire to see your captors face to face?" Without hesitation, Captain Phillips said, "No. Their problems were their fault - not mine."

Another student asked about the accuracy of the movie. Captain Phillips smiled and said, "I think Tom Hanks did a remarkable job but his accent might have been a little off."

Captain Richard Phillips is now traveling the country and speaks to crowds about leadership, courage and endurance. The word "hero" often comes up but he frequently reminds people that he was "just doing his job" and that he was a well-trained and prepared leader. All of us will face a crisis in our lifetime - whether on land or sea - and he believes that all students should prepare themselves so they can be well prepared for adversity.

This lecture is sponsored by the Fairfield University Student Association and the Quick Center for the Arts. The title of the lecture is "Steering Your Ship Through Rough Waters: Lessons on Leadership from Captain Phillips." He is the author of A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.