November 07, 2023

Author of “How to Be: More Pirate”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #113

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Alex Barker, Author of How to Be: More Pirate. Alex has always found interest in how individuals unlearn what we have been taught for generations. Alex worked for the NGO sector for almost 10 years until she noticed the disconnect between people in high positions and even the public.

In her book How to Be: More Pirate, Alex writes about the need to redistribute power and rewrite workplace rules. She also emphasizes the necessity for social movements to invigorate workplaces in respect to the future of work.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Alex shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Try to allocate 30 to 40% of unfavorable tasks to workers and dedicate 60% to activities that provide purpose and meaning in people’s jobs. Because that’s what’s gonna keep them connected to the work and the team.”
  • “The real definition of leadership is to stand back and give more trust and autonomy to members of your team, allow them to lead.”
  • “What we saw was probably the word’s biggest workplace rebellion, they really had the opportunity to direct their own ships.”

Sam Caucci: So I guess maybe to start us off, Alex, you give us maybe a little bit of background on yourself, tell us the whole story. Start at the beginning. 

Alex Barker: How far back do you want to go? So when it comes to Be More Pirate, which is my, my job, I guess. Although I don’t have an official job title at all, I call myself pirate, captain, pirate queen, whatever.

I began with Be More Pirate in 2019, and I did that because I got really frustrated and quite burnt out with working inside an organization because of all the workplace culture that I’m sure your audience is familiar with that, you know, and all the kind of small and big workplace rules that really, well lead quite often lead to burnout.

So I think, I yeah, I’d been in an organization for seven years and I’d gotten really, really frustrated both with, like why it was that I couldn’t get myself out of that situation. So I took a break, I took a sabbatical and during that period of time, I came across a job advertisement. for a right hand pirate.

And it was a job that had been put out by a guy called Sam who wrote a book called Be More Pirate. And now coincidentally, I’d actually seen Sam give a talk in my previous workplace, but I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to it because I was at this point of complete disillusionment with authors standing on, standing on a podium and sort of saying, you know, Here’s my big idea to change the world.

I was like, I want to see some leaders who put their money where their mouth is. To be honest, I was feeling like there was a lot of rhetoric and not a lot of action. So, but the job in advert really intrigued me. So I got in touch, submitted an application. So I didn’t really, I was like looking for something new and I didn’t know what, like where to go. And Be More Pirate, I guess, called to me somewhere deep inside, I thought I probably. I need this, I need to take a few more risks, be a bit more courageous with what I’m doing.

 I’d very much gone down the linear path of work, like, you know, intermiddle management, that sort of thing. And yeah, and then I went into the interview with Sam, like very, very direct, let’s say.

I said, you know, is this book more of a style of substance? Like, is there, are you really interested in making an impact with it? Or is it just kind of like a marketing thing? Like, do you want to just sell books? And Sam is, you know, a really incredible leader and he was very honest and very transparent with me and said, I don’t quite know what this is, but I know the people are writing to me because of this book and telling me that it’s really having an impact on their lives and that they are, you know, it’s making them take action for the first time ever where other transformation programs or workplace initiatives really hadn’t worked.

So, yeah, I immediately warmed to his openness to build something that was different. And since then, Be More Pirate kind of evolved into something between a consultancy business and a social movement. It’s really a hybrid between those two things, because I think that work fundamentally, if I was talking about the future of work, workplaces need an injection of social movements or like the elements of social movements that create change.

And that’s what we lack often when we’re trying to create change inside organizations. Or at least that’s what I’ve learned through doing all the consultancy that we’ve done. Or like, I don’t like to call it consultancy, I would just call it, working with businesses and organizations and people. To think about how do you make a change that really lasts and how do we really bring the future of work into today?

And I definitely come at this. I just like to, you know, share for your audience. I come at this from the perspective of an employee, like of somebody who was you know, has done lots of different jobs. I’ve worked in social care, worked in hospitality. I’ve worked in–, I ended up in communications, but so I’m very, very like aware and conscious at all times when I’m doing this work and helping leaders.

From the perspective of not having a lot of power, maybe, or not feeling that you’ve got a lot of power to change anything and what that impact that has on you. Whereas Sam comes at this a little like the be more pirate idea, a little bit more from a leadership perspective and from having set up multiple businesses.

And so we make it like quite a good team in that respect because we balance out what’s needed. Yeah, so that’s a bit of background. 

Sam Caucci: What about pirates speaks to you? 

Alex Barker: Yeah. So pirates. So I’ll give you a bit of background because the book is actually about real pirates, not metaphorical business pirates.

Yeah. It’s about the untold history of the golden age of piracy, which is a really tiny period from about 1695 to 1725 when we had the British Empire kind of conquering the world. And what you saw was probably the world’s biggest workplace rebellion. Hundreds and eventually thousands of sailors from the Royal Navy decided to rise up and rebel against the establishment because they were so fed up of the dire working conditions in the Navy that they frankly, just had enough.

And at that point they were quite skilled sailors. So they really had the opportunity to direct their own ships. They pretty much began to form their own crews. And with that came the opportunity to completely rewrite the rules because they had a blank slate, a new crew, and they wanted to do something that was in direct opposition to the experience that they’d had in the Navy.

It’s like, as if you came out of a big corporate today and said, hang on, how would I do this entirely differently? Which is what a lot of entrepreneurs do. And within that story, you got for the first time, democracy on board ships. So all the ordinary working class sailors suddenly had a vote on decision making.

They weren’t just told what to do by a captain. They got, you know,  equal and transparent pay structure. So they really didn’t prioritize the leadership when it came to pay. Everybody got equal shares for the treasure. They had quite a lot of diversity in the cruise. So women, we saw female pirates, they freed slave ships and brought them on board.

So it was this really dynamic mix of people working together. You had social insurance for the first time. So if you lost, if you, if you got an injury in a battle, you’d get compensation. And the leadership was really held to account as well. So there was a balance of power. Leaders could be voted in and out and they wouldn’t necessarily, yeah, they would have a kind of dual governance system so that they could put checks and balances on power to stop the tyranny that they’d seen in the Navy.

So it’s this incredibly pioneering progressive culture suddenly emerged out of this really, almost, yeah, peak of frustration, I suppose, or misery. And I think that’s a lesson to be learned. And I think a lot of the rules that pirates created are definitely applicable in modern business now. You know, I do suggest the teams, like, what would it look like if you could vote the CEO out?

Or if you could vote the manager of the team out, like what would that change about the behaviors of the team if we did that? And it throws a whole new load of possibilities open.

So that’s just the gist of the pirate history.

Sam Caucci: A lot of organizations wouldn’t, probably wouldn’t take you up on that one. But you know, you mentioned the world’s biggest work rebellion. I’ve never thought about it that way. And over the over the last two years, we’ve heard great resignation, quiet quitting. There’s a new flavor. There’s a new great every three to six months, it feels like depending on the new cycle, but it’s definitely this theme of work from home and people rethinking their arrangements with work. 

I guess, what have you learned in, in your work, Be More Pirate? What have you learned about leaders that are winning right now? The future of work moment versus the ones that are struggling. Any observations? Because I’d imagine the groups you’re working with want to think they’re going to be pirate.

Alex Barker: Yeah, what happens is they ask us to come and help them be pirate and then maybe don’t know what they’ve bargained for because fundamentally the heart of being more pirate is a redistribution of power. And I think the difference between the leaders that are able to do that is humility in this moment of recognition.

The hardest thing you can say as a leader, I think now is, I don’t know, I don’t know the answers. We’re in a moment of uncertainty, unpredictability. A lot of the Tools and techniques used by management have to be thrown out the window, in my opinion, because they’re not as reliable as they used to be.

And so that takes a great degree of humility around your professional identity to be able to, stand back and give more trust and autonomy to members, members of your team, allow them to lead. And you know, that’s really the definition of leadership for me. I mean, it’s what Sam gave to me during, during our journey as well, that it’s really, you.

Are there to help someone else fulfill their potential. That’s what it’s about. And there’s huge respect and power and honor and everything in being able to do that effectively. So that’s the leaders who are doing that around work and helping people to see in this reshifting that we’re experiencing, like, how can I motivate you?

How can I help you fulfill your potential in this role, rather than sticking to the kind of command and control task based structure that we have, where we have check boxes to complete and all of those things, those things might come into the picture, but I always say to organizations like, try to make the stuff that nobody likes to do, like 30% of it, like 30 to 40% and give 60% to things that people are gonna give people purpose and meaning in their job. 

‘Cause that’s what’s gonna keep them connected to the work and connected to you as a team. If not, they’ll start to quite quit and they’ll start to just sort of silently opt out whilst perhaps masking that.

So, I think, and I think that level of transparency and humility that comes with recognizing some of the flaws of the way that you’ve been working for a really, really long time is huge. It’s huge. 

Sam Caucci: One of the sections in both of the books that I’ve circled and highlighted and I always come back to is the concept of a mutiny.

Yeah. And because one way to look at the future of work is this angle of affecting leaders to change. But there’s also frontline managers who aren’t C level. You know, the frontline, you think about a restaurant brand that has 200 stores. They have 200 general managers. We’re on the front lines. You have to pass the, you know, carry on the directives from above.

And then you do have the front line. You have the front line worker every day. I guess to those two groups, not to the leadership group, but to the front line manager and to the front line worker. What can they do today? from their position, because they may be, you know, your point of, I don’t know, they may be sitting there in a position of, I don’t have a say.

Is there anything that those two audiences can do to make the workplace better? 

Alex Barker: Yeah. How do you basically, I mean, let’s say it’s like, how do you start a mutiny or how do you enact some, some change around and reclaim some of the power to be able to actually affect something? I’d say there’s two. Give teams two starting points and whether it’s hospitality or you’ll be a part of a bigger entity and maybe you don’t feel you have the ability to direct things.

Two things. One is to never attempt anything alone. So quite often I’ll hear people say, oh yeah, I want to, you know, what should I do? And it’s like, it’s not what you should do. It’s what we should do. So find other people who, on the same page as you about things that aren’t maybe working as well as they should like get some allies. That’s the first pirate thing with a pirate rebellion is a collective one. So if you think you see yourself as pirate find the people, you know can trust and start to think about what a collective rule break might be around this. And the second thing is kind of take what I call fire a pistol, not a cannon.

So you might feel like, Oh God, like our pay, our pay is really poor. We really need to change the policy around that. We want to see management change all of that, but what can you do? And the answer is don’t try and do that massive thing and like start a big, like. Fire, fire a cannon at it. And that’s where people will usually crash and burn.

And I always emphasize that the pirate rebellion should be strategic because that’s because they genuinely were, they were creative and organized and strategic. So think about what I call a small, bold action, something that you can do to kind of get the ball rolling, because when you’re at the beginning of a mutiny or rebellion or any kind of change initiative, what you need is momentum.

You need people to start to put trust in you. And in your, in your small crew. So like, let’s see if we can get something started that maybe other people might start to take notice of. Like you, it’s like the idea of building a movement about, like I said, at the beginning around building the idea of social movements into the workplace.

Like the first thing you do is you need to gain traction with other people. So try and find something that will please other people that is maybe a small initial change, but you know, it’s going to stack up to something bigger in the long term. Like quite often I’ll say to people the first thing that they need to do is send an email or approach someone that they’ve never talked to and have them hear them out. Quite often, people naturally start to create a lot of boundaries and silos and lack of permission.

That’s all in their head around like what they can and can’t do in order to create a change. So I asked them to kind of open up their mindset and think about like, where, where are you maybe not giving yourself permission to do something that could actually create a bit of a ripple effect here. There’s not going to get you into tons of trouble that I would say that that’s really important.

If you start to get into trouble beginning at the beginning without a plan, you’ll either get burnt out from it, you’ll get ostracized. And I don’t want, you know, that’s, that’s not what we’re aiming for. We’re thinking about the longer term and the bigger picture here. So yeah, crew and small bold actions are the starting points.

Sam Caucci: I love that. 

Yeah, I love the fire pistol. Because yeah, people get caught up in what they can control. And, you know, speaking for, you know, in the United States as an example, and the realities are a bit different in the UK. But you know in the U. S., one in two workers are low wage.

They’re a 400 parking ticket away from poverty. 80 percent of that group is service sector workers and the majority in hospitality are probably are tipped wage, which means they’re being paid below a minimum wage and as the saying goes, you know, those that get paid the least often pay the most.

And there’s just more workers in that segment who can affect not just the customer relationship because they’re the closest to it. The sea level is not. So, you know, again, as I read the book and I hear the stories and I think about what it means to be a pirate. You know, to me, it just seems like a tremendous opportunity for organizations to employ the best of their people if they’re, if they think about it the right way right now, instead of the command and control model, like you said, that just really is not standing the test of time. 

Alex Barker: I mean, there’s people who are, like you say, kind of on the front line, like speaking to the customers.

Those people are so valuable. They hold so much information about like, the reception, like how people respond to the business. Like all these, I imagine like so many tiny, like small, bold actions, like improvements and things that could be made with the knowledge and expertise of the people who are, yeah, probably being paid the least.

So I think that a progressive leader in that industry would be tapping into that knowledge would be, you know, utilizing and, and empowering and trusting those people to understand the business and think about, you know, how they could be at the forefront, I think of like what like good hospitality would look like.

I mean, you know, that’s kind of what I say to all companies really is I imagine your goal is to explore, I mean, to get ahead of the competition, to be successful, to be ambitious and particularly in our rapidly changing volatile economies. You know, the best thing you can do is, be a bit more off the edges of the map.

So that means, I mean, that can mean lots of different things depending on who you are, but for a leader, quite often that will literally mean I need to spend more time actually with my customers, with my frontline employees, listening to them, listening, like properly listening, you know, deep listening, not, um, listening to project and.

Understanding what their perspectives are and a wealth of knowledge comes from that. And there’s a story in the second book and how to be more prior about Mercedes Benz who did that and how they actually went out and listened to their customers and changed their marketing strategy. And that strategy paid off huge, like hugely during COVID.

But you know, they’re a very, you know, very, very big corporation and there’s lots of people within their divisions who are not, you know, don’t hold a lot of power. So, yeah, that’s definitely it. 

Sam Caucci: I remember the Mercedes Benz story and I’d imagine, you know, it’s interesting you’d expect more pirate stories coming from the early stage tech startup.

Alex Barker: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sam Caucci: Where it seems like a lot of those stories don’t age well, you know? Apple, you know?

Alex Barker: Yeah. So this is so interesting. Yeah. sorry, carry on.

Sam Caucci: No, go ahead. I wanted to hear your perspective on that where, you know, there’s almost starting out as a pirate and then I don’t know. It’s not even like what most pirates in the book, they either meet one end, which is, you know, the end, or they go a different route where they disappear and you never see them again, or something, you know, a mystery.

But you don’t see a lot of pirates go into the Navy. And that’s kind of what happens in a lot of business. They start as a pirate and they decide to go into the Navy. Why does that happen? 

Alex Barker: This is so, it’s so fascinating to me. Like the difference between being a pirate inside and outside of the Navy and how many of the people that we work with or where we see the best success is like coming from inside.

Like and how many pirates that start off pirate end up becoming the Navy. I think that’s partly a natural cycle of when you start at the edges and your innovation is successful, you become, it gets picked up by the mainstream and then becomes mainstream. But the difference I suppose is in leadership again.

And I am of the opinion that the businesses that we commonly think of as maybe pirates or rebels are not, and it frustrates me a lot to, although there’s a Steve Jobs quote on the front of the book, a lot of the technology companies that we, we’ve kind of viewed as these, these rebel companies are  like in no way mirror the power redistribution the pirates had, the real pirates have, you know. Look at, I mean, I’m pretty sure now I don’t quote me on this cause it’s probably inaccurate, but I think Mark Zuckerberg has like 60 percent of the shares still at Meta.

And I think that I got that quote from another book I read recently. And that’s a huge concentration of power. He’s essentially saying, well, at the end of it, I still have the final say, this is my company and has no interest in any kind of shit like power sharing or yeah. And I think that’s definitely not what, for me, what piracy is about.

It’s a rebellion. It’s a rebellion not of the non privileged in many ways. And I think we’ve got to, I always keep that in mind and distinguish very clearly between pirate and rebel. Which I think gets, yeah, can easily get confused. And I, what I see is the people who have come to this movement the most have been the people who’ve learnt the rules and know that they need to break them.

People who’ve kind of learnt to play by the rules, not these kind of maverick characters that we tend to think of. People, it’s people with a huge sense of personal responsibility for the way that the world is, the way that the world is going, who desperately want to make a difference and the shift that they need is a shifted mindset because they have to be able to shed a lot of the old rules of work that we have been conditioned into for so long.

And I think, yeah, that’s where we’re at at the moment. Like the unlearning and unconditioning of a legacy from the industrial revolution of what work is and should be. And it, yeah, it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Sam Caucci: Yeah, the concept of management and you know, where that is rooted as a philosophy and that you truly controlled even the way we talk about humans and resources and labor and not people and not valuable.

I mean, again, we have all these words and constructs we wrap around work which workers have been disadvantaged.

Alex Barker: So even, like when I say small world actions, examples that have come my way through the work we’ve done have been really sometimes a tiny shift in perception. So some of the pirates who have been working in healthcare here in the UK will say, we’re going to call it human relationships, not human resources, like just for our purposes.

Cause that’s what it actually should be about. We want to shift the perception and language changes, which can be a really easy and quick kind of route in. But it’s, yeah, it’s all that legacy that we had in an era when we were thinking about humans as these sort of robotic, um, production drivers. And that’s not the understanding that we have now, but it’s so hard sometimes to make those.

Sam Caucci: Alex, I can’t talk to you without asking you, do you have a favorite pirate or pirate quote? So you have someone, what’s, what’s, what’s on your wall? 

Alex Barker: My favorite pirate is Black Sam Bellamy. Cause I like him cause not many people know about him unless you’ve read Be More Pirate or pirate history books.

And he has the best quote of all. He was no, he was known as the Robin Hood of the sea or the Prince of Pirates. And he was an incredibly successful pirate. And he was very much known for his campaigns around the social justice element of it. And his quote that always stayed with me is when he said they vilify us, the scoundrels do, but there is only this difference.

They rob the poor under the cover of law, whilst we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. And that for me is what sums up really being pirate. You know, that we have this idea that pirates are these villainous, thieving, murdering scoundrels. And you know, I get those questions all the time, like, aren’t they just evil criminals?

And I’m like, well, what do you think is moral and what do you think is criminal? Because I think there’s a hell of a lot of things that go on today that are immoral, but they are not necessarily criminal and vice versa. So, it’s all about, you know, rethinking of your view. And I think Sam Black, Sam sums up really well.

Sam Caucci: Very cool.  Last question for you, Alex. We talked a lot about the future of work. What’s your hope for the future of work?

Alex Barker: Oh, well, I do endeavor to be like very much on the right at the edges. So I don’t, I don’t know if I really believe in the idea of work as it stands at the moment. I think it’s all a completely outdated capitalist concept that by and large, we are still kind of slaves to work. 

I don’t think that in any way supports human thriving in its current form, from what I see on the ground all the time talking to people. So I think the entire thing needs a massive rethink. I think maybe climate change might do that eventually. I know this is, yeah, unpopular opinions, but I don’t, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything.

I think that’s a clear thing. I think humans will always want to do things and we’ll do things that are useful and productive and creative and they will build things and make things. And, but it’s the way that it’s working for the majority of the population of the world right now, it doesn’t work in my opinion.

So it needs to rethink. So maybe that’s too far, whether we’ll get there and how we’ll get there is a different story. 

Sam Caucci: Agreed. Well, thanks for talking with us. I appreciate it. It was great to meet you.

Alex Barker: Okay, take care. 

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Pirates, Training

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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