In a new book — “Mutiny and its Bounty: Leadership Lessons from the Age of Discovery” — Patrick J. Murphy, professor of management, and Ray W. Coye, associate professor emeritus of management, explore similarities between the violent, physical mutinies on seafaring vessels (1420-1640 AD) and the social and intellectual mutinies in today’s business enterprises. The book was featured in the "The Roundup," BloombergBusinessweek (March 21, 2013).
After spending four years perusing original maps, journals and logbooks written by members of historic voyages, and after studying organizational and entrepreneurial behavior for decades, the authors conclude that mutinous events can be therapeutic, renewing experiences—a “lesson lost” from the highly entrepreneurial Age of Discovery.
Here, Murphy answers questions about the authors’ original and unorthodox insights.
Q: So, you’re saying mutinies aren’t always bad?
In both types of mutinies, the underlying trigger is the same: A leader violates the shared values of the group with an action or decision. When leadership is poor or misguided, a mutiny can set things right, assuming the leader or organization adapts and responds positively.
The early ocean explorers saw mutiny as a natural part of a bold enterprise, and leadership meant being able to harness its energy. In a business, what we call mutiny can promote collaborative leadership. That’s why we contend that today’s leaders have much to learn from the old seafarers.
For example, in the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, the crew became increasingly anxious as the small fleet crossing the Atlantic got farther from Spain. Columbus knew they would eventually refuse his authority. When the expected mutiny came, he quelled it by promising to turn back if they did not succeed in three days. Thus, he removed what the members perceived as a threat to their shared value of safety. As it turns out, two days would have been enough, as they spotted land the next evening.
The idea that mutiny is always bad came later, as the purpose of seafaring shifted away from discovery and toward commerce. In our research, we found two events in particular that shifted perceptions on a grand scale.
First, when Sebastian Cabot founded the Company of Merchant Adventurers in 1551, he wrote a charter that condemned mutineers. By the mid-1700s, England had three mutiny acts — one is cited in the Declaration of Independence—granting a leader the power to crush anything that hinted at insurrection.
Second, in 1578 during Francis Drake’s replication of Magellan’s global circumnavigation, a mutineer was executed. Not only did Drake get away with it, but that the idea that mutiny was always hostile to a venture’s noble purpose took hold. The Industrial Revolution eventually heralded ever more new, highly structured organizations; against these, defiance was — and still is — threatening.
Today’s entrepreneurial age, with its looser and flatter organizational structures, is rather close in spirit to the Age of Discovery, and leaders of entrepreneurial enterprises have a lot in common with those early ship captains. For one thing, both know that the line between success and failure is often tortuously thin. The differences concern how leaders in the two contexts think about mutiny and how members might seek to undertake one.
Q: What are the “lessons learned” for corporate leaders and mutineers?
In established companies, culture is akin to policy: Members cannot easily question their leaders. In fact, those who would undertake a mutiny in a mature organizational environment have a lot in common with entrepreneurs. Both have to advance “an agenda” in a hostile environment: for entrepreneurs, it’s a competitive market; for mutineers, it’s the structures of the company. Both need secrecy, the right team, timing, a profound understanding of strategy and tactics, and even some luck.
For leaders, the most important thing to understand is that trust and distrust are not opposites in organizational settings. Instead, they are two separate dimensions. Trust has to do with shared values and interpersonal connections. Distrust, on the other hand, has to do with task competence and expertise. A leader can be high or low on each dimension, which yields four permutations. This rubric helps explain why some leaders are likable but incompetent, whereas others may be very unpleasant as individuals but clearly experts at their work.
The relationship between trust/distrust and mutinies is clear in the historic cases.
For example, Magellan was Portuguese and his sailors were Spanish. They didn’t share certain cultural values, so the members didn’t trust him. But Magellan’s technical expertise was outstanding, which allowed him to maintain authority. In such a case, operational mistakes are deadly to a leader’s position; when a mutiny is strategic and well-planned, it may succeed. Henry Hudson was the opposite. In most of his voyages, he and his crew were English; the level of trust was high. Hudson was in a leadership role, not because of his technical skill, but in part because his grandfather had co-founded the Company of Merchant Adventurers with Sebastian Cabot 60 years earlier. Everyone knew he was not a great navigator, but his crew was forgiving of his mistakes to a large extent. But eventually those mistakes added up, igniting a violent flash of mutiny when the ship became trapped in the ice on what is now known as Hudson Bay. This mutiny was tactical—that is, it was circumstantial and spontaneous.
Rebellion is at the core of many of our most fundamental traditions, stories, and mythologies. People will always push back against authority when that authority betrays the trust of those under its command. That’s only human.