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Captain Evaluated - Steve Zissou

Team Zissou in the mini-sub, chasing the Jaguar Shark
© 2004 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

Captains Evaluated

Leading teams—into the unknown or on a strict mission—has been the stuff stories are made of for ages. From crossing the Rubicon to heisting a bank, we at Kirk & Blackbeard love teams accomplishing the impossible. So we thought it would be interesting to explore how historical or fictional leaders would hold up today leading digital teams. Steve Zissou—the protagonist of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”—has been one of my heroes since the movie came out in 2004. Let’s explore how he holds up against today’s standards.

Chasing His North Star

If you don’t look close enough, you might mistake Steve Zissou for a washed-up has-been. Sure, he seems to suffer a bit of misfortune: his most recent documentary was ill-received, he has just lost his best friend Esteban, and there are all kinds of troubles financing his upcoming expedition. But this never stops him from moving forward, chasing his North Star and inspiring a global audience with the wonders of deep-sea life—embodied in the quest to find the mythical Jaguar Shark that ate his friend.

Team Zissou in a meeting to prepare the mission
© 2004 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

Leading by Example

As a leader, Zissou has long-wrought close relations with his team members, allowing him to blindly trust their capabilities. The team may carry his name, however he always makes sure that success is seen not as a personal victory but as Team Zissou’s success. So when his leadership is challenged, Zissou remains open-minded and never makes it too personal: “The first thing that goes through a captain’s head when he hears there’s low morale goin’ around is: ‘What’d I do? Is it all my fault?’ Well, he’s probably right. (…) Look, if you’re not against me… don’t cross this line. If yes, do. I love you all.”

Captain Zissou in an interview on the deck of the Belafonte
© 2004 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

Agile Before It Existed

When pirates capture the Belafonte, Zissou rises above the situation and singlehandedly frees his crew members while chasing the pirates off his ship. And even though the story is set in the 1960s, you can see that Captain Zissou had already adopted an explorative mindset and an agile way of working. Ready to tackle the unknown, he says, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. And then we film it. That’s the whole concept.” We can only dream of teams being this open minded.

Captain Zissou and Ned in the lobby of the Hotel Citroën
© 2004 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

A Perfect Leader?

Far from it. On the Belafonte, there is not a healthy work-life balance, with Zissou requiring 100% dedication to the cause. And it’s unclear if Team Zissou is the open, LGBTQ+-friendly workplace that today’s talent requires. Additionally, with two crew members dying over the course of two expeditions, health and safety standards seem to be up for improvement. Despite all this, Steve Zissou knows how to deliver. He manages to rescue almost his entire crew and his nemesis, completes the documentary along the way, which is received with success, resulting in a successful mission, a happy team, and a transformed Zissou himself. That's what we would call a Captain of Done.

A happy Team Zissou walking towards the Belafonte
© 2004 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

Not convinced?

Go watch or re-watch “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” on Disney+ or Amazon Prime Video and tell me what you think. And if you want a more realistic conversation on modern leadership for digital-driven organizations, call Kirk & Blackbeard right now.