There was only one motivational saying on the wall when Keith Colburn played football for North Lake Tahoe High School in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The phrase: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca.
Colburn loves that saying. And it’s served him well in an interesting life, where he’s constantly preparing for the next opportunity in the unique world of king crab fishing off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Sea. One of the stars of the popular reality TV show Deadliest Catch, Colburn, on the show since 2007, was recently in Tampa for a speaking engagement. He was the keynote speaker for Metalcon, a conference for the metal, design and construction industries held at the Tampa Convention Center Oct. 6-8.
‘Trust me, crab fishing in the Bearing Sea is the most miserable work on the planet. It can’t be any colder and you can’t be any more miserable.’ Keith Colburn
In his talk, and when I met Colburn for a one-on-one interview afterward, he was more laidback than the sometimes gruff and often intense Capt. Colburn seen on TV. Yet even when relaxed, Colburn’s keys to being a good leader, in any business, are serious reminders that, similar to his favorite saying, lack of preparation can sink any company. “How do you avoid becoming the Kodak camera of your industry?” Colburn asked the audience of Metalcon attendees. “By preparing, by adapting and by foreseeing what you need to foresee to be better than the competition.”
Colburn and I chatted a lot about leading under pressure. The pressure to have a good day at sea, to lead with confidence and to lead without second-guessing yourself in stressful situations. All things Colburn says he deals with regularly.
Asked what makes for a good captain or leader, Colburn offers three vital characteristics: perseverance, a vision to see around competitive corners and, he says, “most importantly, you have to stay calm when the shit hits the fan.”
“You have to find a way to keep your emotions in check,” he adds, “and adapt well to the situation in front of you.”
Like any good seaman, Colburn, 58, backs up his stay-calm mantra with a story. It happened in 2009 on his 156-foot steel-hulled boat — another star of the Deadliest Catch, The Wizard — when, he says, he misjudged an incoming wave. Three crewmembers, including his younger brother, Monte Colburn, were putting a tarp over some containers when something really did hit the fan: a 40-foot wall of water surged the trio, Keith Colburn recalls, pushing back some 50,000 pounds of crab pots.
Monte Colburn suffered four or five broken ribs, while another crewmember got a black eye. A third crewmember wrecked his back from the force and had a head injury. It was walking wounded on the deck, as Keith Colburn watched from the cabin. Making matters worse, Colburn in a 2009 blog post on boat website soundingsonline.com, says the violent flapping of the tarp made it impossible for the crew to hear his screaming.
“All of a sudden I had to be not only captain, but a nurse and a medic and also an engineer to get things working again,” Colburn tells me.
Colburn says in situations like that he has an acute ability to slow things down and focus on what’s right in front of him. Part of that stems from preparation and training, while another part is experience. That’s how he handled that calamity at sea, righting the ship and treating the crew one step a time. That kind of grace under pressure, he says, separates good captains from great captains. “You have to be laser-sharp out there,” he says. “You have to look at like a vacuum. When I was handling that, everything just went into slow motion.”
Not to say Colburn is made of stone. He just makes a point, he says, to not show emotion while amid a crisis. “I kept it together through all that,” he says, “and then after that I went to my room and really broke down.”
In talking to Colburn and learning about his life, it’s evident he’s done well in another side of leadership: if he asks someone on his team to do something, it’s likely he’s done it himself at one point in his life at sea. “I’ve had to be a motivator, a life coach and everything else to keep my boat running,” he says.
Colburn has been in Alaska fishing since 1985. He came to The Last Frontier back then, at 22 years old, with his buddy Kurt Frankenberg. They wanted to trade the Lake Tahoe ski bum life for the Great American adventure. Colburn landed in Kodiak Alaska, according to his Deadliest Catch bio, “with no experience, a tent and $50. Spurred by the romantic vision of working at sea and the rumor of big paydays, he was determined to try something new and exciting.”
His first gig? As a greenhorn on the Alaska Trader, a 135-foot crabber/tender. “I went from the bilge to the bridge,” he says, referring to the bottom of a boat to the top. “I worked my way up from nothing. When I got to Alaska I didn’t have a thing.”
In 1988 he became a full-share deckhand on The Wizard. Two years later he moved from the deck to the pilot house. Two years after that he was named captain.
Outside of performing well under pressure, Colburn refers frequently to the importance of communicating well as a leader. “We all speak, learn and understand differently,” he says, “so communicating is critical. We train. We drill. And we respond.”
Colburn says his method of communication could be blunt at times, but it both gets the job done and sets up a clear chain of command. He needs to know he can trust his crew, he says, and just as important that they can trust him.
In terms of communicating, he also advises leaders to look for opportunities to ensure everyone on the team — no pun intended — is rowing in the same direction. “It only takes one bad apple to disrupt the entire crew,” he says.
One of the most impressive features of Colburn’s leadership style? His humility. For someone who is captain of the been-there, done-that parade, Colburn works hard to shelve his ego — despite what it looks like on the highly-edited reality TV show. “One of my first goals when I got to Alaska was I wanted to learn something new from someone every day,” he says. “I still do that now.”