Dealing with Mutiny

I recently read an account of Magellan’s historical attempt to circumvent the globe.  The story begins with an interesting description of Magellan attempting to convince the King Manual of Portugal to support his trip.  After being rebuked repeatedly, Magellan flees Portugal to meet with the young Hapsburg king of Spain.  Once gaining support from the king, Magellan navigates other royal authorities and deals with the jealousy and pettiness that stood in his way before leaving Seville.  He leaves Spain in September 1591 with five ships and makes his way down the African coast.  As soon as the plans for his route are revealed, three of his Spanish captains start to plot against him.  His nationality, his approach of following the African coast, and his lack of influential connections in Spain all fuel the plot laid out by Cartagena.

When Cartagena attempted to instigate a mutiny, Magellan has him imprisoned and shifts leadership of his vessel to someone more loyal.  In time, Magellan out of desire to show mercy and concern with Caartagena’s family connections releases him.  By the time his ships reach the southern portion of what is today Brazil, the men are tired, hungry, and weather beaten from major storms.  As the ships continue to look for the passage to the Pacific Ocean, rations are reduced and fresh water is low.  The crews start to suffer from scurvy and the disloyal comments of a few of the captains begin to fall on more supportive ears.  The growing decent is diminished temporarily when indigenous people of this area, the Guarani are located and fresh food and water is more available.

After the weather improves, the small fleet moves south again.  The good weather does not last long and a major storm damages three of the five ships.  His captains continue to plot behind his back and build resent among their crews.  As winter begins and negative sentiment continues to grow, a portion of the officers and men are ready to return to Spain and abandon the endeavor.  Magellan opposes this idea due to the realization that to return without finding the Spice Islands would end his career and more than likely land him in jail.   Pigafetta describes the St. Julian’s Mutiny as follows:

“On 1 April Magellan called everyone ashore for Mass; but the captains Cartagena, Mendoza and Quesada did not appear, and soon afterwards there was open revolt. The ringleader was Cartagena. On the night of 1 April he boarded the San Antonio [whose captain was loyal to Magellan] and forced the ship’s company to acknowledge him as their leader. So on the morning of 2 April Cartagena was in control of three ships – the San Antonio, Victoria and Conception – and Magellan of only two — Trinidad and the Santiago. However, by a cunning ruse, the Admiral managed to win possession of the Victoria, and he then placed his three vessels across the mouth of the harbour. During the night fate played into his hands; the San Antonio dragged her anchor and came drifting toward the flagship. She was taken with hardly a blow – for on finding themselves boarded the crew quickly declared for Magellan. As a result Cartagena, the next morning, found himself outnumbered and had no option but to submit. The rebels were swiftly punished. Mendoza had been killed during the retaking of the Victoria; Cartagena and the chaplain were first put on parole, then (when they again made trouble) marooned, and Quesada was executed. The crew who had taken an active part in the insurrection were condemned to work in chains….”

Magellan survived this challenge to find the passage that today is his namesake, sailed across the Pacific Ocean, landed in Guam, and died in the Philippines.  Two of his ships went on to find the Spice Islands and one returned to Spain after circumventing the globe.  He made a number of mistakes like any leader tends to do in situations where hard decisions have to be made without perfect insight or information.  However, Magellan is remembered as the man that led the effort to circumvent the globe and held up as one of the standards of those that embrace adventure regardless of the odds.

As I considered Magellan’s accomplishments, I thought more and more about how his experiences relate to ours as leaders today.  We all make tough decisions, our decisions have critical even if not life and death ramifications for those that follow us, and we do not always have the complete support of those that should support us.

Mutinies happened in business just like they did in the past at sea or on the battlefield.  Although most businesses do not allow senior management to behead or maroon those that oppose them, there are dire career costs to those that oppose their leaders.  Similarly, an ignored and unsupported leader is comprised at best and let go at worst.  Just as Magellan dealt with his captains opposing him and building resentment, most of us have dealt with direct reports that support our decisions to our face, but undermine us to their direct reports.  How many times have you heard a mid-level manager say that he or she disagrees with the leadership’s decision, but have to comply regardless?  What can we do as leaders to reduce the chance of mutiny?

Be aware of signs of discontent – There are signs that occur as discontent grows: less engagement, more conflict, less teamwork, and more distrust.  A leader needs to pay attention to the formal and informal signs of rising concern and early rebellion.

Don’t ignore challenges – Most of us routinely deny that opposition is occurring and want to explain it away.  However, as issues arise and employees begin to lose faith in their leaders, action needs to be taken.  More importantly, a leader is well served by continuously addressing engagement and preventing any negative feeling from taking root for any length of time.

Set an acceptable threshold – As a leader, there should be a limit or a threshold that a leader allows when opposition arises.  Although it is positive to encourage different viewpoints and dialogue, it is important that a team moves forward once a decision is made.  If direct reports or other subordinates begin to move beyond this acceptable limit, their future role needs to be considered.

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