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Mutiny and its Bounty

By Patrick Murphy and Ray Coye

(Yale University Press, 283 pages, $26.50)

Did you know that Christopher Columbus faced a mutiny that nearly kept him from his discovery of what was then called the New World? Faced with turning back or being thrown into the sea, he desperately bargained, telling his rebellious men that if they didn't find land in three days, they would turn back. Two days later, San Salvador was spotted.

Ferdinand Magellan also faced mutinies, dealing with them viciously, beheading and drawing and quartering the leaders. At one point, he sentenced 40 crew members to death, but since that was 20 per cent of his crew and he needed them to continue his mission, he pardoned them (although some were kept in chains for a few weeks).

Sebastian Cabot and Henry Hudson also faced mutinies. Indeed, mutinies were common in the sea-faring Age of Discovery, as visionary explorers and their crews dealt with the uncertainties and rigours of long voyages. "Mutinies in the wooden confines of a ship were as common as restructurings, layoffs, mergers, and acquisitions in most business settings. Mutiny was, and is, a natural part of enterprise," management professors and U.S. maritime service veterans Patrick Murphy and Ray Coye write in Mutiny and its Bounty.

Modern mutinies are less physical than those on the sailing ships of old, but the authors say they retain many of the same elements. For a start, they usually come as a surprise to a leader, but really they are simply revealing what lies under the surface in an organization. They are an expression of defiance, and defiance of authority is part of human development.

Leaders usually view mutinies as threats to the organization, but in many cases the revolts are simply threats to the leader. "When an enterprise faces uncertainty and a leader's decisions clash with the shared values of members, mutinies may benefit the whole organization," the professors observe. Indeed, they suggest leadership and mutiny should not be viewed as, alternatively, good and bad, but as intertwined, self-balancing yin and yang. If flawed leadership can hurt an organization, then an effective mutiny can help an organization.

Their book includes in-depth case histories of the handling of mutinies by Columbus, Magellan, Cabot and Hudson. They say mutinies invariably start with a critical incident that provides an opportunity to act, and it always requires co-ordination. In the case of Hudson, there were so many incidents provoking the anger of the crew that the mutineers even compiled a long list of grievances. Staying co-ordinated can be difficult, which is how Magellan won out. He attacked the mutineers on the different ships in sequence, regaining control and, through assassinations, arrests and beheadings, punctured support for the uprising.

An interesting lesson from the book is the role played by trust and distrust. Leaders are trusted because of a special connection to the organization's members and shared experiences. The authors argue trust is quite separate from competence or expertise. Magellan was extremely competent but, since he was Portuguese and much of his crew was from Spain, he had trouble winning their trust until they were in the Pacific Ocean together, after going through the strait that now bears his name, and they had to struggle as a group to survive.

Interestingly, the authors suggest that before winning trust, Magellan had led effectively because of a low level of distrust, which flows from actions, correct management decisions, and expertise. So trust and distrust aren't opposite sides of the same coin, they argue, but stem from different aspects of leadership. Trust is a connection between people, while distrust applies to behaviour.

"It is easier to keep distrust low than it is to earn high trust. Low distrust is also easier to lose: It entails actions that are superficial and observable compared with shared values. It involves personal characteristics that are behavioural. Trust, by contrast, pertains to shared values. It is more complex," they write.

Subordinates, therefore, can simultaneously trust and distrust their leaders, according to this viewpoint. To avoid mutinies, leaders must pay attention to trust and distrust. If trust is low and distrust high, then mutinies are natural – they happen easily, without having to be forced. But they can also arise if only one of these two factors is less than ideal.

"One way to earn trust is by cultivating relationships and one way to avoid distrust is by demonstrating expertise. Trust and distrust can be earned and lost," they advise.

They suggest that business schools consider a course in mutiny, as part of their study of organizational behaviour. They note that a mutiny at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories in 1957 led to more than 100 firms being founded over subsequent decades that helped to power Silicon Valley. "Mutiny can have its bounty," they conclude. "As in the Age of Discovery, mutiny is relevant to entrepreneurship and innovation in organizational settings."

The stories of the mutinies faced by the four explorers are quite engaging, and certainly highlight the importance of thinking about mutinies. By pinpointing key factors, and notably illuminating the tricky dimensions of trust and distrust, the authors offer some interesting ideas for leaders to consider.


  • Consultant Steven Haines offers guidance for product managers in The Product Manager’s Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 213 pages, $26.95)
  • Various articles on design thinking from the past decade in Rotman Magazine have been brought together in Rotman on Design (University of Toronto Press, 264 pages, $39.95), edited by the school of management’s dean Roger Martin and its executive director of strategic communication, Karen Christensen.
  • Howard Green, anchor of the Headline show on Business News Network, chronicles in Banking On America (Harper-Collins, 276 pages, $32.99) the successes over the years of TD Bank and how it moved into the formidable U.S. marketplace.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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