Is it Time for Mutiny?

Harvard Business Review

Perhaps you have dreamed of mutiny. Perhaps you serve under a boss whose grasp of what is important to the organization's success and how to achieve it is so shaky that he or she should be dispatched as an incompetent. Or maybe that leader's treatment of subordinates is so uncaring as to be abusive. If the situation is so bad that you are actually plotting the insurrection, it's a good moment to ask: When do mutinies actually succeed?

We actually know the answer to that question, from the people who did mutiny best: seafarers in the Age of Discovery. My colleague Ray Coye and I 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.

Mutinies were as common as the wind on Age of Discovery seafaring ventures. What's more, the people participating in them often had very sophisticated conceptualizations of leadership and service. They also recorded firsthand much of what happened. Our analysis of records and diaries from their long enterprises shows that mutinies are successfully carried out when a few conditions are present:

  • Leadership is destructive. Interestingly, we find 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 (although apparently it wasn't strategic enough; Magellan viciously quashed it).
  • Values have been flouted. 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. But the mechanism is identical.
  • Ringleaders are strong. Because 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.
  • The external environment is uncertain and features novel threats. Whether it's due to weak technical expertise or low interpersonal skill (or both), bad leaders are especially prone to poor management decisions when the environment is uncertain and unprogrammed actions are necessary. 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.

Put all this together and you have a situation where an influential member is able to make the case that the current leader can't be trusted to deal with new threats because of their demonstrated lapse in upholding values.

When mutiny occurs, the leader involved usually sees it as a sudden flash that is obscene. But the members involved in the action see it differently. Like an entrepreneurial team, they formulate a strategic plan for mutiny in secret, execute it tactically, and face the risks with a sense of justice and purpose. And here is the real surprise of our research: the mutinies are usually for the better. Given the connotations of the term mutiny, and the images it brings to mind, few would expect that it would have a largely ameliorative function. In our post-industrial age, mutiny is taboo. But the culture of the Age of Discovery assumed that members should depose a bad leader. It was understood that mutiny could save a venture or help it succeed.

Ship captains recognized this and the best of them were, amazingly, able to harness the mutinous energy and put it in service of the venture. Christopher Columbus dealt with three mutinies during his most famous enterprise; he used the first mutiny to bolster commitment from members and discover land. Although there were also some infamously fierce mutinies, those cases turn out to have been the exceptions.

Reflect for a moment on the nature of high-risk business ventures, and you might conclude that this mutinous ethos still exists. If you are familiar with entrepreneurial communities, then you know that not deposing bad leadership is hostile to the survival of a venture. Entrepreneurial founders and leaders are often removed via mutinies, and it usually happens when environmental uncertainty is most salient.

Indeed, 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.

The similarities do not end there. Another peculiarity of the Age of Discovery is that its bold seafaring ventures were revered at a sociocultural level, much as high-impact entrepreneurial exploits are revered today. Now as then, people dream of leading such ventures, and come to do so through a remarkably analogous process.

By contrast, the case for mutiny is very hard to make in the modern industrial organization. Here, successful performance is defined above all by efficiency. Members cannot mutiny against their leader without violating policy, disrupting operations, and usually creating a situation even uglier than bad leadership itself. Typically, even if perceptions of the inadequacy of management are widely shared and easily justified, members can't do very much about it.

Unlike in entrepreneurial communities, the notion of mutiny is anathema to the dominant logic of organizational life in big companies. That doesn't mean that those working under a bad leader don't fantasize about taking mutinous action, or indulge in more subtle forms of it. (A mutiny that is social and intellectual can still be intense.) It may mean, however, that they are putting their careers much more at risk, and that perhaps they should consider another kind of life: the authority-dashing life of the entrepreneur.

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