Gurus use the metaphors “the world is flat”, referring to the amazing impact of communication technologies and to global convergence, or “the world is round”, meaning the still prevalent and centrifugal local forces across the Globe. Arguing about the shape of the World six centuries ago, however, could make you liable to be prosecuted, at even risk to your own life.
Christopher Columbus (1450/51?-1506 ), who lived at that time was fearless and and based his exploratory venture on the roundedness of the World. Today many countries celebrate October 12, commemorating the successful landing of Columbus’ expedition, supported by the Castile Crown, at San Salvador (currently the Bahamas) on that same day in 1492. Some historians question whether this event was the actual discovery of the continent by Europeans, since the Vikings had reached Labrador Island in a previous epochs, but the credit went to the enigmatic Admiral given the subsequent conquest and a successful marketing initiative: Amerigo Vespucci, one of the members of his crew, accidentally gave his name to the discovered continent in one of his letters to a friend in Europe, who later spread the news.
One of the virtues of Columbus was his perseverance, especially manifested in the looking for support and launching of his project. He wanted to discover a new way to the Indies (Far East) westbound. Until then, explorers went to Asia following the path of Marco Polo and the Silk Road or navigating around the African Coast and rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Columbus challenged the extended belief at his time that the world was flat and he further thought that the distance between Portugal and Japan was 2,760 miles –a severe miscalculation since it is actually over 12,000 miles. In fact, these mismatches between data estimations and actual facts and figures, common at early expeditions before the world was properly mapped, remind us of similar errors at companies when trying to predict the uncertain, for example the size of the potential market for a new product, or the required future investments of a start up.
Columbus search of alternative financial resources for his expedition also reminds us of current fund raising efforts and road shows performed by many entrepreneurs. Columbus knocked at many doors and received negative answers from different kings and merchants. However, his endurance rendered results and he was lucky to find the support of Isabel, Queen of Castile, who was in the right mood just after reuniting the Iberian Peninsula and founding the kingdom of Spain.
Apart from his endurance, there are not many other virtues applicable to Columbus as a manager, according to available sources. He was not a skilled pilot, according to comments of different experts, although he improved with experience and did successfully take advantage of the trade winds. In fact, historians wonder whether he realized he had reached a new continent after his four subsequent travels to America. What is even more obvious is that he lacked the necessary and effective leadership skills: He fought with all his captains and his crew was on the verge of mutiny several times. Columbus could only trust the members of his family, something that unfortunately happens at some family businesses and this results in unsustainable management. During his third trip to America, he faced the opposition of settlers and friars who accused him of mismanagement and was imprisoned by a delegate of the Crown and required to go back to Castile. It is well-known now, his refusal to have his shackles removed during the whole voyage on the ship back to Spain, puffed up with pride. Indeed, self-pride, developed over the years as a consequence of his recognized achievements in life, was one of his weaknesses, as his son tells us of his passing away: “the Admiral, suffering more severely still from his gout and other illnesses and from grief at seeing himself so fallen from his high state, yielded his soul to God on Ascension Day”…
Being credited with the discovery of a new continent may be enough basis to inflate one’s ego, and pride, as happened with Columbus. However, I believe that pride is not a good advisor for top managers: it may distort our opinions about people and their intentions. My suggestion is that you get rid of personal pride while deciding about important issues at your company or while evaluating the performance of others. I conceive management as more a service to others than a way to achieve fame and public recognition. I guess that if you cultivate this spirit of service you will much better equipped than Columbus to overcome future adversity and the inevitable low-points throughout your career.
The account of the first discovery of American land in the book(*) is not as epic as some paintings or movies have portrayed. The night between October 11 and 12 was filled with subsequent confirmations of land coming into sight. I enclose some words extracted from Columbus log-book on his historical landing at Guanahani: “In order to win their friendship –he refers to the natives-(…) I gave some of them red caps and glass beads which they hung round their necks, also many other triffles. These things pleased them greatly and they became marvelously friendly to us. They afterwards swam out to the ship’s boats in which we were sitting, bringing us parrots and balls of cotton thread and spears and many other things, which they exchanged with us for such objects as glass heads, hawks and bells. In fact, they were willingly traded everything they had”. It’s a timeless evidence of business’ prodigy. It proves that business is the best connector between people from different cultures. Business, then and now, makes the Word flatter.
(*) The book referenced here is a compilation of different writings, including Columbus log-book, and excerpts from works by Bartolomé de las Casas, Hernando Columbus –son of Christopher- and others, edited by J.M. Cohen.