In honor of February and its traditional run up to the Oscars, in my podcast on business leadership, 12 O’Clock High, a podcast on business leadership, I am exploring leadership lessons from Oscar-winning Best Pictures. In this four-part series, host Richard Lummis and myself mine some of our favorites for modern day lessons which might be garnered for the business leader. Of course they also resonate for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO).

In our first offering, we considered the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, which had the never before or since distinction of having three stars nominated for Best Actor, Clark Gable as Fletcher Christenson, Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Franchot Tone as Midshipman Roger Byam. The movie was based on the first of The Bounty Trilogy, written by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, which also included Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island. The film is also the last movie to win Best Picture and no other awards.

Charles Laughton’s portrayal of Bligh, as Captain aboard the Bounty, was almost as a marionette. However, it was Bligh’s leadership style that I want to focus on. As noted by Robert Webb, on his Motivation in the Workplace site in an article entitled Captain Bligh and Leadership, said “Bligh’s problems on the Bounty is an excellent example of how one man changed from control leadership to team unity in a matter of minutes.” Bligh “micro managing the HMS Bounty crew and wanted everyone to know he was the boss, which was more important to him than efficiency. To compound the problem, he considered maximum control as a means to achieve efficiency. As a result, everything went wrong.”

However, after departing Tahiti, and after a series of progressively more antagonistic acts towards the crew, they finally had enough and mutinied. The mutineers cast Bligh and eighteen crewmembers adrift in a lifeboat. As told in the second of Nordhoff and Hall’s The Bounty Trilogy Men Against the Sea, without charts or navigation tools, they sailed the open boat 3,600 miles to the Dutch colony, Timor, near Java. This outstanding achievement is only possible with a team united behind a common goal, with what Webb termed “use of comfort zone navigation, the art of using intuitive forces where facts are not available.”

Webb went on to note that Mutiny on the Bounty “has elements of every work environment, the struggle between getting the job done and leaders desire for control. Social prejudice and intuitive forces are always working in the background that will develop a supporting or fighting attitude. In Captain Bligh’s case, he managed by control and the seamen were resisting control. Each side was in a fighting mood and each was searching for ways to outwit the other, not an efficient way to get things done. Aboard the Bounty, Captain Bligh’s priority was total control. In the lifeboat things were different, priority was survival, or get the job done. Survival automatically unites people into a team where team members are willing to listen to others opinions, free of social prejudice.”

On the Bounty, control for Bligh was the top priority and it was this desire for control that resulted in no unity on the ship; there was a high degree of social prejudice among the crew and there were three distinct groups pulling the ship and the crew in different directions; Bligh made his decisions based on preconceived opinions of class and prejudice. Contrast these factors with those on the lifeboat after the mutiny. Here there was no prejudice, with all men treated equally; it was not control that had priority but the unity of the men in the lifeboat; the men were literally pulling together for unity which resulted in the control Bligh so wanted on the Bounty.

Patrick J. Murphy, writing in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled “Is it Time for Mutiny?, looked at the events from a different perspective. He and a colleague asked the question “When do mutinies succeed?” To answer this question, they “spent four years mining obscure primary-source accounts and journals from the era from the mid-1400s to the early 1600s to write Mutiny and Its Bounty. This was the time when seafarers like Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Henry Hudson undertook risky ventures at sea. Their venturing began in Portugal and Spain and went on for hundreds of years and with staggering volume. It’s a rarely studied era, but it holds deep lessons in human enterprise — even more, in many respects, than the study of modern industrial organizations.”

Murphy found four conditions were present in the documented mutinies:

  1. Leadership is destructive. Murphy found “that mutinies go differently for different kinds of bad leaders. When leaders are technically weak, for example, but well-liked, members depose them via fast, tactical mutinies. The case of Henry Hudson, set adrift on today’s Hudson Bay, is a prime example. Members depose technically brilliant but not well-liked leaders with careful, strategic mutinies. Here, a mutiny against Ferdinand Magellan on the South American coast comes to mind.”
  2. Values have been flouted. Murphy found that “when leader actions threaten the values that members share, an organization becomes a social powder keg. In the Age of Discovery, those shared values were centered on basic needs like the supply and quality of food, and the safety of the crew. In a modern organization, an assault on a work group’s shared values more likely threatens higher-order needs for meaning and esteem.”
  3. Ringleaders are strong. It turns out that mutineers are not weak but are usually quite strong-willed individuals. Murphy wrote, “a mutiny requires coordinated, energized action, the role of the ringleader is essential. Credible, inspiring ringleaders are as vital to mutinies as founders are to entrepreneurial ventures.”
  4. The external environment is uncertain and features novel threats. Murphy said the historical record revealed “bad leaders are especially prone to poor management decisions when the environment is uncertain and not programmed actions are necessary.” [Maybe like the Atlanta coaching staff in the fourth quarter of the recent Super Bowl LI.] However, and “at the same time, threats and opportunities to an organization are opportunities and threats (i.e., transposed) for a mutiny inside that organization. They are important to mutiny planning and execution.”

Murphy tied these long ago events to modern day business situations. He pointed to “the current entrepreneurial age, launched in mid-twentieth century Silicon Valley, is itself the product of a mutiny. The brief history is that it all began when the team at Shockley Semiconductor rose up against its founder William Shockley. The “traitorous eight” as Shockley would call them ever after, went on to found the set of firms (including Intel and AMD) that made Palo Alto the center of technology innovation. It was a culture defining event that embedded assumptions still present in the Valley about the value of trained specialists, delegated power, autonomy, flat and adaptable organizational structures, and questioning flawed authority.”

It turns out there are multiple lessons to be learnt from 18th Century British naval voyages. As a leader, you do not want to engage in the behavior of a Captain Bligh and lead your top subordinates to feel they have nothing to lose by overthrowing your captainship. As a follower, it turns out that a successful mutiny requires many unique, business-related skills. Before you make any move you need to check to see that you have the requisite technical and inter-personal skills to pull it off.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017