For Patrick J. Murphy, associate professor of management, understanding history is a key to recognizing good and bad business leadership in the modern age. To help others gain such knowledge, he and former DePaul faculty member Ray Coye wrote “Mutiny and Its Bounty: Leadership Lessons from the Age of Discovery” (Yale University Press, 2013).

Here, Murphy talks more about the book’s background and how its focus on historical mutinies can benefit businesspeople today.

How much do people know about mutinies in organizational settings?
Not much. Most business professionals with several years of experience are familiar with a case of mutiny. It's pretty common. Moreover, most people know about famous stories such as “The Caine Mutiny” or actual famous examples such as “Mutiny on the Bounty.” But that's about it. The concept has become so culturally taboo that it almost strains credulity to claim that mutiny is not necessarily a bad thing. But that's the way it was in the Age of Discovery and that's what we claim in the book. As I say, mutiny is a common impulse today, and especially so in entrepreneurial ventures. It is implicitly human; many of humanity's most influential texts and stories are based on the notion of defying authority for the sake of a larger purpose. So, mutiny is something that many people would like to undertake because it would help their enterprise, but they have no idea how to do it in a way that is constructive. It can help or even save an organization.

Why did you choose to combine historic mutinies with leadership lessons for today?

The historic cases from the Age of Discovery that we examined have two benefits. First, as indicated in the previous question, people today are rather clueless when it comes to the how to depose a leader who deserves to be deposed. That was not the case in the Age of Discovery. Part of the definition of leadership on a seafaring venture included the ability to recognize potential mutiny and deal with it effectively, including even harnessing its energy in the service of the enterprise.

Second, the available data on historical mutinies are extremely rich and detailed. Most people are familiar with the culture of measurement and recording that existed (and still exists) on ventures at sea. In the Age of Discovery, members of ventures kept journals and ventures had logbooks. The isolation and the long stretches of time made it easier to maintain them.

The happy result for a researcher like me is a set of multiple first-person accounts of single events, recorded in extreme qualitative detail. If you try to research a mutiny in a modern organization, you will not get very far because the data are not reliable, people are not objective and often it is kept secret. Therefore, what we have is a historic period in which the concept of mutiny was far more sophisticated than it is today and the measurement culture was open and intense. Finally, as seafaring ventures had certain commonalities in terms of how they operated, we are able to explain variance in mutiny cases in terms of pure human and social dynamics that are still relevant today.

What was your favorite part about researching and writing the book?

It was fun to use mathematical techniques that were unknown to the world during the Age of Discovery, like calculus and the use of radians, to check recorded distances in logbooks. The old seafarers were surprisingly accurate. I was also quite amazed by the relevance of today's technology to undertaking research on cases that are 500 years old. As you'd expect, many measurements of distance, latitude and time are found in the records.

At some point while researching the book I realized that I could use Google Earth to check estimates and even locate and view small rock formations and stretches of coastline that were described in journals in the Age of Discovery. History research is very much like science fiction. That is, both start with a set of assumptions and facts and then extrapolate about what happened (historically) or what will happen in the future. They are really quite functionally equivalent undertakings and both can be very rigorous and exciting.

How could learning about mutinies help students/alumni in their careers?

Many of our students are going to go to work in entrepreneurial ventures. Most people do not know that the history of Silicon Valley, the seat of today's dominant worldview of entrepreneurial action, began with a mutiny in the late 1950s (at Shockley Semiconductor). Mutiny is embedded into the entrepreneurial culture. I know of several firms that removed their leaders multiple times as they grew. Dealing with mutiny is a skill set that can benefit leaders and members. If you are going to lead an entrepreneurial venture, then you need to know how to deal with the blowback that is bound to come when your leadership actions and decisions violate shared values.

Can you provide an example?

For instance, on Christopher Columbus’s first and most famous enterprise, the members all shared a value that fueled anxiety as they went farther away from Spain. Columbus managed it much like today’s unethical accountants in that he kept multiple books, one of which understated how far they had traveled. But the members eventually caught on, and his leadership actions thus began to strain members’ shared values. The decision that sparked mutiny was a navigational error in which Columbus traveled for an entire day toward what he thought was land but turned out to be a bank of clouds. Once the members mutinied, Columbus pledged that they would turn around if land was not discovered in three days. It not only quelled the mutiny, but it also spurred motivation. (Two days would have been enough, as they spotted islands the next evening.) Leading to the brink of mutiny and then using risk to achieve success is fairly common among entrepreneurial ventures today, but it was second nature for leaders in the Age of Discovery.

What can business leaders learn from the book?

Today’s leaders and entrepreneurs understand that the difference between success and failure is often a tortuously thin margin. Leaders in the Age of Discovery provide some breathtaking examples of how to transcend that margin purposefully and get results. If a leader is oblivious to it, then it is a sure way to be deposed. It can happen easily because humans are very poor at conceptualizing growth or performing in growth-laden contexts. I would add here that, for members, defying a bad leader in coordination is a good thing because no one wants to work for a poor leader. What is missing today is the sophistication with which people engaged such issues on seafaring ventures in the Age of Discovery.