Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Leadership on the Bounty

I just finished reading the Bounty trilogy and was struck by the many leadership lessons to be found within. Most know the story of 'Mutiny on the Bounty.' Captain Bligh was the petty dictator. Fletcher Christian the calm leader who, when he'd had enough, mutinied and cast Bligh adrift and returned to Tahiti. But what happened after that was the more interesting part of the story. The trilogy is made up of three books:
    The full 'Bounty' trilogy by Nordhoff and Hall.
  1. Mutiny on the Bounty, which we just discussed.
  2. 'Men against the sea.' The story of Bligh's return to civilization with almost all of the 18 men cast adrift with him
  3. 'Pitcairn's Island.' The story of the mutineer's life on their island refuge.
Let's first discuss the different leadership styles of Bligh versus Christian.  Any good book has opposition and this book focused on the two leaders.
Bligh, the petty tyrant, who's only power came from his position as captain and the weight of British Admiralty law. Bligh dominated his crew on their voyage to Tahiti, making unfair demands and obnoxious complaints. He handed out harsh lashings to anyone who he suspected of opposing him. When the ship landed in Tahiti and the men made friends with the natives who wanted to gift them with fresh meat and produce, Bligh commandeered everything for ship's stores. The men didn't trust Bligh because they suspected him of cheating them of their fair rations when the ship left England and pocketing the profits.

Fletcher Christian's leadership style was to trust the men under his command and treat them with the respect they deserved as men and sailors. Christian stood up to Bligh's bullying until his honor as a gentleman was challenged. At that point he chose to make a raft and abandon ship, only deciding to mutiny at an opportune moment. When he mutinied, most of the crew jumped to his side, knowing him to be a fair man. The only men who refused to side with him were some of the officers who well knew the punishment awaiting any British mutineers.

The story is simple and can be seen many times in every organization. Petty tyrants get themselves in positions of power and abuse that power but they always seem to get their's in the end. At least in my experience. Good leaders find followers who will stick their necks out for them when crisis strikes and lead their companies or projects to victory.

Book two offered a different contrast.
In this book we see the leadership style of Bligh when he's in crisis mode and contrast that with his leadership style in the first book, while at peace. What's interesting is that he is a great leader in times of crisis. His journey of over 3,600 miles in an open boat still stands as one of the greatest maritime achievements of all time. Picture this: A 25 foot sailboat, loaded with nineteen men, clothes, equipment, food and water, with one sail and two oars, crossing half the Pacific ocean from almost Tahiti to Indonesia. There was no more than eight inches of freeboard above the water in calm seas and they had to brave storms, hostile natives and the Great Barrier Reef in their 40 day journey.

Red = Bounty under Bligh, Green = launch under Bligh, Yellow = Bounty under Christian
The men who survived this trip with Bligh attested, to a man, that with anyone else in command, they would have all died. The one man who did die, felled by hostile natives, would have survived if he'd listened to his captain and abandoned the anchor he was trying to rescue. Many times in the storms, Bligh made instant decisions that were obeyed and saved their lives. His vast knowledge of the sea, his photographic memory of the islands in this part of the world and his seamanship saved them all.

But what was fascinating was watching how he reacted the few times the sailors rested on land. He quickly reverted to the tyrant as soon as the crisis was over. This brought a further contrast to the leadership style he showed during the open boat sailing. Then he was selfless, hard-working, decisive and caring for his men. He shared out the meager rations evenly and took more than his share of the hard work.

How many leaders do we know like this in our jobs? Those amazing men and women we can rely on during those tough projects and other crisis who surprise us with the way they manage during calm periods. Was Churchill a good example of a world leader in this mold?

Finally, book three tells the story of Fletcher Christian and the mutineers in their hideaway on Pitcairn's island. Here he was the undisputed leader, not only of his fellow Englishmen and their wives, but also of the Tahitian men and women who joined them. His fatal flaw, which became the key to damning the island residents, was his belief in democracy amongst the English without extending it to the Natives.

He led the island well but when some of the rougher mutineers chose to split up the island nine ways, one for each white man, he allowed them to outvote his party five to nine and caused a rift with the natives. This resulted in a race war that ended with him dying, along with four other mutineers and all of the Indian men dead.

(For 'Survivor' fans, this is an excellent book for showing tribal alliances, obnoxious contestants, bloody tribal councils, literal blindsides and backstabs and island living at its best. I'm rooting for Survior Pitcairn in the near future.)

So how do we compare this management style to real life? I've met many leaders who can calmly lead their teams through crises by trusting them but are afraid to make the tough decisions when he realizes they are needed for the survival of their team or function. Christian knew well enough that the decision made by the majority would lead to bloodshed but he allowed it to happen. Sometimes you need to step up and make those tough decisions that make your project successful, even if you annoy some of your team.

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