Lessons for modern managers and leaders from Blackbeard

Lessons for modern managers and leaders from Blackbeard

Today’s managers and leaders can learn a lot from the pirate captains of old. Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino talks about the progressive methods that reigned on pirate ships.

One hot summer day in the 18th century, a group of pirates was sailing off the coast of Virginia when they spotted a merchant ship heading south. The robbers launched an attack on the foreign vessel and showered it with a barrage of bullets and grenades. The captain of the merchant ship let go of the rudder and it rolled, so the pirates approached and boarded the ship. The captain followed them through the smoke screen of shells. His broad chest was festooned with belts of daggers and pistols. Black ribbons were woven into his beard. The most dangerous pirate of his time, infamously known as Blackbeard has captured another ship.

We usually associate pirates with violence, robbery, and mayhem – and all of this is undeniably true. What we may not have thought about is how a man like Blackbeard can so successfully inspire and keep his crew under control. It turns out that the pirates were surprisingly and even instructively progressive on many issues. Here are three points that I think might be of interest to today’s leaders.

All are equal. Merchant ships on the high seas have been a floating dictatorship for many sailors. With the vessel’s owner’s blessing, the captain treated the crew as he saw fit, often involving cruelty. The sailors were beaten, underpaid, crushed by work and at times starved. Morality has been excluded. Disagreement was considered rebellion.

The pirates, in contrast, practiced a revolutionary form of democracy. To ensure the smooth operation of the ship for several months and to prevent a mutiny, the pirates voted on who would be the captain, placed limits on his power, and guaranteed the right of the crew members to vote in general affairs. They also elected an officer to settle petty disputes within the crew, distribute provisions and money, and control the captain’s authority to protect the common interests.

Only amid the battle did the captain take full command. During the rest of the time, no one controlled the people on board. The captain and crew voted on all matters – where to sail, who to rob and how best to do it, and then what to do with the captives. In the event of a dispute over the rules, it was not the captain, but a committee of crew members who made the decision. With enough votes, the group could not only demote or fire the captain but also cast him on an island or throw him into the sea.

A strong sense of empathy. Any pirate could protest or express his opinion without fear of reprisal, as crew members were protected by “articles” – constitution-like rules drawn up for each ship. The Articles were formulated democratically and required the unanimous consent of all before the expedition began. They regulate the rights and obligations of crew members, rules for settling disputes, incentives and insurance for maintaining bravery in battle, and compensation for the wounded. The articles gave everyone a sense of personal contribution – so the pirates felt their actions mattered.

Skills and dedication are important, not the past. While sailing on the high seas, pirates recruited sailors of different races, religions, and nationalities, which proves their cosmopolitanism. Although slavery was widespread on land, at sea black pirates had the right to vote, an equal share of the booty could bear arms and were even elected captains. Each pirate was valued for his skill and diligence, and his past and skin color did not matter. In attacking a slave ship, pirates were sure to get a very good crew. Blackbeard’s ship was probably more progressive and just than American and English society at the time.

Will they elect you as a leader?

Regardless of industry or company role, we all face choices about how to behave in the workplace – in relationships, across teams, and in companies. We can brag about our position, focus on our accomplishments, or get attention with a loud voice. But we can also think like a pirate, ensuring that every man in our crew “shall have an equal voice in current affairs” – as stated in the first article of the charter of the ship commanded by the Welsh outlaw Blackbeard, known for in the “golden age” of piracy it captured the most vessels. We can strive to give each person a sense of personal contribution to the team’s success. We can ignore gender and nationality to improve skills and work attitudes.

According to a study of more than 800 employees, people who feel a strong sense of belonging to their organization and feel that their voice counts as others are more engaged, satisfied, and productive. When the right to participate in the discussion of ideas and problems becomes common rather than concentrated in the hands of a few, employees and their companies thrive.

The service of captains of pirate ships was beneficial to the crew, and this meant that they knew they had to earn the trust of their crew. Our working careers would be especially different if we adhered to Blackbeard’s way of thinking and like him asked ourselves the question every day: “Am I the captain that my team would choose as their leader today?” This important question can focus our attention and energy on creating conditions that help each member of the team to develop and achieve great success.

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