What Did Steve Jobs and Ferdinand Magellan Have in Common?

Patrick J. Murphy

February 19, 2013 · 6 minutes read

Uncategorized

My colleague Ray Coye and I recently wrote a book entitled Mutiny and Its Bounty: Leadership Lessons from the Age of DiscoveryIt stems from a paper we published in 2010 in a scholarly journal that was eventually selected as that journal’s best paper. Later, Yale University Press contacted me to ask if we would be interested in writing a book based on our work. Entrepreneurs will find this book interesting because it highlights the importance of coordinated upward defiance to bold, risky entrepreneurial ventures in uncertain environments. It is a book about mutiny, and the historic cases it examines entail dramatic and extremely intense scenes.

Historical violence notwithstanding, today’s entrepreneurs and seafarers in the Age of Discovery (early 1400s-mid 1600s) have a lot in common.  You may know something about that era: ventures undertaken by figures like Columbus and Magellan were extremely entrepreneurial.  They have many parallels with today’s startups. Raising money, doing the deal, building a team, formulating a strategy, competing with other ventures, engaging uncertainty, and more—it’s all there.  In both settings, tensions emerge among leaders and members when success or failure become salient.  However, in the earlier setting of the Age of Discovery, an intense culture of measurement, logbook maintenance, and the keeping of journals and personal diaries by multiple members of those entrepreneurial enterprises allows a close examination of the inner venture dynamics.

A mutiny is a scary prospect to an entrepreneurial venture.

It is usually viewed as a bad thing. But in the Age of Discovery, it was different. Adventurers knew how to harness a mutiny in ways so artful that it aided the performance of the enterprise. It was part of the definition of leadership. Starters leading today’s bold and risky ventures can learn something from those settings.

I have seen a few fights among leaders and members in startup ventures. One time, I witnessed a pretty well-known entrepreneur get tackled by his partner as he went after an external visitor who criticized his idea. Experienced starters often say, “If you are not yelling at each other in early-stage team meetings, then something is wrong.” Tension is natural in the startup world, but not all entrepreneurs are good at handling it.  Some of the most contentious teams have mutinied even as they generate radically successful ventures.  Sometimes leaders are invited back, as in the case of Steve Jobs. Most Age of Discovery seafarers were experts at handling such events.

When is mutiny good for an entrepreneurial venture?

Age of Discovery ventures offer a great setting for engaging that question.  They were undertaken for a period of over 400 years, ending in the mid-1800s.  Compare that history to our current history with the industrial organization (less than 200 years) that dominates our business worldview today.  Our current entrepreneurial age, traced to the advent of Silicon Valley in the 1950s, has an even shorter history.  Humankind’s relationship with seafaring ventures was much more mature than its current relationship with entrepreneurial ventures. The measurement culture aboard those ventures and the resulting journalistic data are rich and thorough.  Thousands of ventures launched from Portugal and Spain every year, embracing uncertainty and hoping to discover riches in spices, gold, diamonds, or land, deliver a return to investors, and enrich themselves.  Everything that happened on those ventures is intricately recorded from multiple perspectives.  Like today, most failed.  Yet, also like today, successful ones often became famous.  Such ventures, like ones led by Ferdinand Magellan as well as Steve Jobs, lost their leaders early but still went on changing the world.

The book takes 300 pages to explore cases from the first 250 years of this period.  Because the journalistic accounts we used were very detailed, the lessons for leaders and members of entrepreneurial ventures are explained thoroughly.

Here are some brief highlights:

The elements that make an entrepreneurial venture successful are identical to those that make a mutiny successful.

It may surprise you to know that the entrepreneurial history of Silicon Valley, traced back to its nascent origins, began with a mutiny at Shockley Semiconductor in 1957.  The lineage from that mutiny spawned more than 40 ventures by 1970 and about 100 ventures by 1990. You may also know about the early days of Apple, when Steve Jobs raised a pirate flag over the building where the new personal computer was being designed. Entrepreneurial ventures are like a mutiny, but in the context of a whole market. Challenging the existing order is threatening, but it is vital enough that it can easily emerge inside the boundaries of an entrepreneurial venture, just like it did in ventures during the Age of Discovery.

Trust and distrust are not opposites in risky venture settings.

It is possible for the leader of any venture to be likable but incompetent.  Similarly, it is possible for one to be competent but unlikable. It is thus possible to trust and distrust someone at the same time. Members can distrust a leader’s competence even as they trust his or her values, and vice-versa.  These permutations are functionally relevant and the right mix generates mutiny when environments are uncertain.

The matrix of threats and opportunities outside a venture is transposed for a mutiny inside that venture.

Internally deposing a leader often involves a venture’s external environment.  Threats to the venture may be exactly what brings opportunities for mutiny.  In the Age of Discovery, it was often tensions between national cultures or dangers on the ocean that mutineers utilized to execute mutiny.  Today, a nascent technology or any threat to the business model, if leveraged carefully against a leader, can serve the same function.  Executing a mutiny inside an organization is similar to undertaking an entrepreneurial venture in a market that resists it or is hostile to it.  As the book illustrates, mutineers in the Age of Discovery were extremely clever in this regard. By the same token, their leaders were very sophisticated when handling mutinies. Today’s ventures have much to learn from them.

Transformational leadership and mutiny have a lot in common.

One difference between management and leadership is that the former is “top-down,” whereas the latter is “bottom-up.”  Leadership transforms member performance when it sets free the basic values or intrinsic motivations already existing in members. Those values and motivations become a force of human nature. Transformational leaders are facilitators; they create environments that enable members to express themselves in personally meaningful ways that members find energizing.  A mutiny is similar, it is also a “bottom-up” force, but it is undertaken in spite (not because) of a venture’s leader and often enabled by a ringleader.

We do not intend for Mutiny and Its Bounty to be the “anarchist’s cookbook” of the business or startup world. However, some venture leaders deserve a mutiny. The book’s lessons are as useful to leaders wishing to prevent or quell a mutiny as they are to members wishing to depose their leader. Some modern examples are in the book, but we had to disguise the identities of key players. By contrast, we report the historic cases openly and just as they happened.

What about you?  Do you know any examples of mutiny?  Have you experienced a potential or actual one?

3 Comments

  1. Mutinies of the Age of Discovery are fascinating and provide important lessons of success and failure of ventures. It is easy to overlook historical events such as Columbus and other early voyages but they really are similar to modern startups and ventures. I cannot wait to read Mutiny and Its Bounty

  2. Interesting blog Patrick.

    I especially enjoyed the section about trust and distrust. I haven’t heard this categorization of leaders before, and I think it’s fascinating. It seems to that most successful leaders are competent and untrustworthy.

    Also the bit about the transformational leaders is inspiring to me as a start-up founder! Amongst all the nagging work that has to be done, I often forget that one of my major roles ought to be inspiring our team to find that energy from within to keep pushing forward.

    • thank you shayan. i do find it useful to ascribe trust to people and their values while ascribing distrust to their competence. not treating trust and distrust as opposites helps explain how a likable person who is incompetent can stay in a leadership role. also, trust is harder to earn and harder to lose than distrust is. there’s a old stream of management research along these lines cited in the book.

      trust is related to transformational leadership. if one connects with and motivates members it’s usually based on sharing values with them. shared values are part of the definition of trust in organizational settings. shared values are also akin to leadership because they are also part of the definition of culture in a sociocultural as well as organizational sense. it also is a safeguard against mutiny. it’s relevant in the book because the leaders were often foreigners from different cultures. e.g., portuguese magellan leading a largely spanish crew. they did not trust him much (they shared different values) but the distrust in his competence was very low because he was an expert. hence, mutiny was liable to emerge once the going got tough and the environment became uncertain.

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