If You Were A Sailor, What Type of Leader Would You Be? Exploring the 8 Styles of Leadership

I thought I would have some fun regarding leadership styles and applying them to the Golden Age of Sail…

From the mid 1600s through to the sub mid 1700s, buccaneers, pirates and naval captains were busily plying their respective trades. It was all about the treasure, and in particular, the treasure of Spain. After this period, we see the rise of the great naval powers, each jockeying for position to rule the high seas. There were some amazing sailors at this time and even greater seafaring captains to boot. So, using Howard Schultz’s (Former Starbuck’s CEO) take on each of the Eight Styles of Leadership, see if you can work out the type of leader you would be on the high seas 🏴‍☠️ ⚓️ ⛵️…

The Captain (Servant Leadership)

The Captains were the superstars of the golden age of sail. In naval terms, they were given command of the largest ships, the galleons (Man of Wars) or were allocated key roles to play.

They used their skills to place the needs of others above their own. They believed that the professional and personal fulfilment of their team members resulted in a higher quality of work. They certainly worked to benefit the ship (workplace), and their country (culture) in the hope of making the world a better place.

Examples are the literary heroes Horatio Hornblower and his real life mentor Sir (Viscount) Edward Pellew. Sir Edward led an amazing life and had a stellar naval career. An example of his servitude to others was on 26 January 1796 when the East Indiaman Dutton carrying more than four hundred troops, together with many women and children, ran aground under Plymouth Hoe. Due to the heavy seas, the crew and soldiers aboard were unable to get to shore. Sir Edward swam out to the wreck with a rope and, with help from young Irishman Jeremiah Coghlan CB, helped rig a lifeline that saved almost all aboard. For this feat Sir Edward was created a baronet on 18 March 1796. He was later Lord Exmouth and Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom. Jeremiah became a Captain in due course and was made Companion of the Order of the Bath. It is thought he was the basis for Horatio Hornblower’s character.

In history, other great captains were Sir Walter Raleigh (the great explorer who also contributed to the legend of “El Dorado,”) Captain James Cook FRS (along with Joseph Banks developed the concept of the scientific expedition) and Lord Horatio Nelson (who became a captain at the age of 20 and perhaps, later, the greatest naval commander of all time).

The Buccaneer (Visionary Leadership)

The buccaneer or privateer was a swashbuckling innovator and visionary leader. They were licensed pirates able to obtain treasure from their opponents without their employer (King or Queen) officially recognising they were the ones that had sanctioned the raiding of the treasure ships in the first place.

In the West Indies, the English, Dutch, French and Portuguese privateers freely peddled letters of marque (a letter of authorisation to raid other ships) amongst each other when aspiring to take down the rich Spanish prizes (ships) or raid Spanish settlements in the area (Violet Barbour).

Famous buccanners were Sir Francis Drake (recognised as one of the great explorers and contributor to the destruction of the Spanish Armada), Willian Dampier (the first Englsihman to explore Australia, the first person to circumnavigate the world three times and he was also mentioned in Gulliver’s Travels) and Captain Henry Morgan. The latter was also knighted for his buccaneering ways and served out his days as the deputy governor of Jamaica (Ten Famous Captains).

The Pirate (Democratic Leadership)

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Pirates were, it has to be said, egalitarian in nature. They were quite participative in how they went about making decisions. Typically, their captain would solicit input from each one of them regarding who or what they were going to plunder. Also, the pirates got to elect their captain and even to remove their captain if they were not up to the task.

Joseph Bannister was such a pirate and a pirate captain to boot! John Chatterton, famous pirate shipwreck hunter, in an interview with California Diver described Bannister’s situation: “he turned his back on a promising career as a merchant captain, and turned to piracy. But his world was one of monarchs, slavery, oppression, injustice, and often hopelessness for those not born to wealth and privilege. The pirates raged against the status quo. It was not about money, it was about freedom for individuals with few other choices in life.”

In today’s world, the benefits of such an approach include boosting group morale, job satisfaction and engagement! We can find effective evidence of such an approach through the inspiring leadership of Ricardo Semler. His Ted Talk on corporate democracy is here

I think I might have been a pirate at one point 😉

The Pirate King (Charismatic Leadership)

Henry Every was in every sense of the word, the charasmatic leader. He was only a pirate for two years, but during that time he effected the greatest bit of pirating the world has seen (The Golden Age of Piracy notes he plundered a ship personally owned by the Emperor of the Mugal Empire, a booty worth $178M AUD in today’s money) and could bind the other pirate captains to his command through his excellent speaking skills.

So what did Henry Every do that ganered everyone’s attention? Well he wrote the following open letter (I have used an adapted form (Pirates Ahoy) as some may have found the original form a little difficult to read):

To All English Commanders

Let this satisfy that I was riding here at this instant in the Fancy, `man-of`-war, formerly the Charles of the Spanish expedition who departed from La Coruna 7th May 1694, being then and now a ship of 46 guns, 150 men, and bound to seek our fortunes. I have never yet wronged any English or Dutch, or ever intend whilst I am commander. Wherefore as I commonly speak with all ships I desire whoever comes to the perusal of this to take this signal, that if you or any whom you may inform are desirous to know what we are at a distance, then make your ancient [ship’s flag] up in a ball or bundle and hoist him at the mizzen peak, the mizzen being furled. I shall answer with the same, and never molest you, for my men are hungry, stout, and resolute, and should they exceed my desire I cannot help myself. As yet an Englishman’s friend,
At Johanna, 18th February 1695

Henry Every
Here is 160 odd French armed men at Mohilla who waits the opportunity of getting any ship, take care of yourselves.

So, charasmatic leaders rely on charm and personality to communicate goals and envourage performance. They are adept at inspiring team members to accomplich a shared objective, often through a rallying speech or through infectious enthusiasm. When wa the last time you gave a speech or wrote words that inspired those around you?

The Commodore (Laissez-Faire Leadership)

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A Commodore is a captain who leads a squadron i.e. more than one ship. Typically, a squadron would consist of a collection of smaller warships. In this situation, the Commodore can be likened to a manager or executive manager who has responsibility for a number of branches or departments, that are often quite diverse.

The Laissez-Faire style of leadership was one of three original leadership styles identified by Kurt Lewin (Leadership and Performance Partners). The others were Autocratic and Democratic leadership.

In essence, Laissez-Faire is a hands off approach that involves the manager delegating responsibility and decsions making to team members with minimal supervision. So, no micromanaging in this situation! This style of leadership can encourage innovation by empowering self-motivated employees to engage with their own passions and interests. Warren Buffet is considered a very fine example of this approach. In 2022, his networth is in the order of $112.6 USD (Forbes).

The Commander (Transactional Leadership)

A transactional leadership approach typically involves offering incentives for effective performance and penalties or disciplinary action for poor performance. A transactional management style can be a particularly strategic leadership approach when you want to achieve specific performance-related benchmarks.

To appreciate this level of leadership, either watching the film Master and Commander (Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany) or reading the book of the same name by Patrick O’Brian. The book’s protagonist is James Aubrey as Master and Commander (the original title for commander), who was the captain of smaller vessels before going onto bigger and better things. Commander Aubrey was given a series of key tasks and was the keen strategist in carrying these out. He would discuss these with his chief officers and ensured everyone was up to the mark!

The First Mate (Bureacratic Leadership)

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The First Mate (or Quartermaster if we were on a pirate ship) is the Chief Officer responsible for all that happens on the deck of the Ship. They are second only to the Captain. In otherwords, they are responsible for the day to day running of the ship, including managing the crew. They are typically a “by the books” leader, the regulator responsible for a stable and systemized approach. They adhere strictly to company policy and tradition and set clearly defined expectations for their team members to follow.

In history (Kristy Puchko), there were a number of notorius female pirates including Anne Bonny, Mary Read and Anne Dieu-Le-Veut who were famous first mates. In both literature and history, the men included the likes of Fletcher Christian (Mutiny on the Bounty fame), Owen Chase ( inspiration for Moby-Dick) and Edward Low (a notorius pirate who compiled a code of conduct based on the Royal Navy’s own Articles of War)

The Lieutenant (Autocratic Leadership)

Autocratic leadership is helpful when quick decisions have to be made. The lieutenants were typically the individual department heads on a sailing ship (e.g. the watch, the division – matters re mustering the crew, the mess and berthing the ship, action stations). They often made decisions unilaterally, without consulting the crew under their area of responsibility. However, this may have put them at odds with those higher up the chain of command. The largest ships had six lieutenants, in order of seniority. A frigate (smaller ship) had three lieutenants.

The Admiral (Situational Leadership Style)

We can add a further leadership type and that is Situational Leadership, a model developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard.

This leader is the one who can choose a different leadership style according to the situation at hand. CEOs are often this type of leader. They can, all at the same time: be visionary, undertake coaching and promote democratic behaviour.

In history (History Net), they are Lord Charles Howard (the architect of the Spanish Armada defeat), Yi Sun-sin (often called the Horatio Nelson of Korea. He defeated the Japanese Navy, not once, but twice) and Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruytera Dutch admiral who defeated English and French fleets. He was particularly famous for sailing up the Thames into the heart of England and capturing a number of English Man of Wars.

I hope you enjoyed your sail through the high seas and were able to tease out what type of leader you are 😊

8 Comments on “If You Were A Sailor, What Type of Leader Would You Be? Exploring the 8 Styles of Leadership”

  1. I have often wondered about pirates and their leaders. I mean being a captain of a pirate ship is a very dangerous job–not only the danger of the seafaring journeys, but also the danger of being caught. On top of that, the danger of mutiny by disgruntled fellow pirates. He has to be able to handle all of them. In addition, a ship usually needs a lot of maintenance, supply etc. It’s no easy task and if people had other options, they wouldn’t have chosen this profession.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very good observation, Haoyan. At the height of piracy, so many had taken to such ways because of how difficult life had become. In many ways, the pirate communities were like cooperatives, where they had a chance to be not only equal socially, but also to do those things you have mentioned, safely. Hollywood doesn’t really paint an accurate picture, but there is nothing better than a good pirate movie 🏴‍☠️🏴‍☠️🏴‍☠️


  2. I’ve heard of these concepts for leadership, but this is the first time I’ve heard them applied to a pirate ship situation. It could be a fun idea to have a company transformed into a pirate ship for Halloween and have the entire management take on these roles you’ve got here.

    Liked by 1 person

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