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
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
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