We the Partnership

How you can use a ship battle from Pirates of the Caribbean as a metaphor for leadership training

By Parker Schaffel | January 4, 2021

Government agencies don’t determine success based on how many widgets they produce, but rather on how quickly and effectively they can make decisions on how best to provide services and implement policies.  

The intelligence community, for example, must get the best intelligence and analyze it quickly and correctly, to preempt attacks or other nefarious actions against our nation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needs accurate data to predict tornadoes and hurricanes, and enable employees to issue alerts at the right times to save lives. The US Forest Service must be able to determine the spread and direction of the wildfires, and its employees must make the right decisions on how to implement the right responses at the right times. 

So, how do you know if your employees are ready to make the right decisions at the right times? How can you ensure that they have the self-awareness, critical thinking and decision-making skills to make the right calls when lives could be on the line? 

These questions were posed by the co-CEOs of a company called NextJump, an e-commerce company based in Manhattan. I was attending a two-day seminar along with some of my former colleagues at the CIA to learn from them about NextJump’s innovative take on workplace and office culture, as well as how they use it to develop their employees’ leadership skills. 

The movie Pirates of the Caribbean as a business model? 

During the seminar, one of the CEOs explained his organization has two sides to its business model: revenue and culture, and he used a ship as a metaphor. “Imagine the Black Pearl pirate ship from Pirates of the Caribbean,” he said, “and think about when it’s in combat with the British Interceptor.” He described a situation when cannons blasted holes in ship above the waterline. “It wasn’t pretty, but that damage could be repaired, and the ship stayed afloat. Hits below the waterline, though, could sink it.” 

Along the same lines, the organization could take more risks on culture innovations because the company “ship” would sail on even if the effort failed. A big revenue failure, however, could lead to collapse. 

He explained that a benefit of taking risks to solve culture-related problems is employees can practice skills that help them move into leadership roles, control a budget and more. Even failed efforts help employees grow, make them more self-aware and give them skills in critical thinking and decision-making. 

At NextJump, these efforts demonstrated to leaders who had the self-awareness, humility, emotional intelligence, decision-making and critical thinking skills to make important decisions, including on revenue. 

Improve the public sector with a private sector approach  

Federal agencies’ primary goal is the mission, not revenue, but I realized that the company’s lessons still hold. So, after the conference, several CIA instructors and I developed a course on using cultural initiatives to shape leadership growth, sharing the movie ship analogy as the baseline for the course, which was for participants at the GS-8 through GS-12 level. 

Identifying problems and offering solutions 

Breaking attendees into six-person teams, I would ask groups to brainstorm workplace culture-related problems in their offices. Participants determined a range of issues, though many themes emerged like insufficient onboarding programs for new coworkers and the need for teams to work together better. 

Teams had to choose one issue and build a plan to address it by considering factors including personnel, information gathering, logistics, communications and finances. With these plans, they could show their managers their skills in leading a group, directing tasks and assignments, giving feedback and direction, resource management and providing strategic vision, all of which would demonstrate that they were ready to take on roles of increasing responsibility.   

Making better decisions more quickly 

Ensuring federal employees can make the right decisions at the right times is critical. You can help arm agency employees with good decision-making skills by using workplace culture as the practice ground for developing those skills. By doing so, you’ll ensure your colleagues have the critical thinking, self-awareness and leadership skills they need to make the right decisions, faster. 

Visit the Public Service Leadership Model for more resources to develop your and your employees’ leadership skills.


Parker Schaffel