The world of pirates has always raised curiosity among children and adults and its golden age (1695-1721) helped us discover famous characters such as Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, or the fiction favorites of James Hook and Jack Sparrow. But the reality is that far from being romantic villains, their life was much less glamourous: most of them were immensely poor and their attacks didn’t usually target a chest full of gold doubloons but rather food and medicine -most pirates died after two years sailing mainly due to syphilis and scurvy.

But perhaps the most astonishing fact about real pirates was their meticulous organization and -even if seems a joke- their deep sense of justice; something that clashes with the chaotic and tyrant image that we have of them.

Here are a few examples:

  • Pirates didn’t take power at gunpoint. They were elected democratically by the crew and they only acted as captains -i.e.: directed orders- in the most dangerous moments (the boarding).
  • The real power was held by the boatswain, who was also chosen by popular vote based on the most honest and reliable person on the boat, since he was responsible for managing food and drink, solving internal conflicts and giving away the distributing the bootie.
  • Most of the bootie was sold -except some food and medicine- and the money was distributed proportionally -the captain and boatswain would get just a few more coins that the rest- and 25-30% of the bootie was reinvested in the boat’s upkeep.
  • Every boat had an internal code that was drafted by the captains and approved by all the crew members. Breaking a rule could go from being abandoned with just a bottle of water and a gun (ie: for hiding secrets) to death penalty (ie: for not respecting women).
  • The first man spotting a boat would get the best gun (they used performance bonuses) and if someone lost a limb they would get a big compensation (they had their own social security system).

Adapted to our current environment, there are a few takeaways that we can extract from the pirate life which seem to be still valid nowadays:

1) The more complex the environment, the simpler the rules. And these rules need to be known and share by everyone. Every piece of information that you don’t give is information that people will interpret and they will interpret in their own way.

2) The more we have at stake, the more important it is to maintain our values. Our biggest risk is not to betray others but to betray ourselves.

3) Respecting the order and the process is non-negotiable and does not depend on the resources available. Not having the time is not an excuse for not doing things right and for not doing the right thing. Also understanding that they will never be perfect because we don’t live in a perfect world… 

4) If pirates had one eye on the present and another on the future -allocating funds for the boat’s upkeep-, we can (and perhaps should) do it too.

5) Often times something you do on your boat (=organization) doesn’t make sense on another boat, but the important thing is that it makes sense on yours. Every organization (company, family…) is a unique boat and it shouldn’t surprise us that things are doing different on another boat. What’s important is that every member has a clear image of their responsibility and why things are done the way they are done.

What is the pirate code of your organization? And your family? Which are the 3-4 most important things for each of the members? Are these values known and respected?

Maybe you have it or maybe not, but the good thing is that in this case it is never too late for boarding.

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