Monday, October 14, 2013

Christopher Columbus

521 years ago 12 October, around 2 AM, a lookout onboard Pinta – Rodrigo de Triana – sighted land.  Columbus may not have arrived at the ‘East Indies’ or eastern Asia, but he had found the New World.

There has grown up over the past several decades a whole industry of people who have debunked him; we have been told that multiple Viking voyages had reached North America, and indeed the remains of small towns, dating back roughly 1,000 years, have been unearthed in Canada’s Maritime Provinces.  The Irish also lay claim – via Brendan the Navigator – to having reached these shores well before Columbus, perhaps as early as the 6th or 7th century.  And there is, of course, the speculation that Egyptian sailors, using reed boats, may have journeyed here more than 3000 years ago. 

And while there is debate as to who first reached the New World, others bemoan the subsequent exploration and colonization of the New World by the Old, and the destruction of the Aztec and Incan civilizations; and while certainly there were many deplorable events in the following centuries, I must admit remain a bit confused as to why I should weep over the destruction of civilizations that actively engaged in human sacrifice (both of them) or cannibalism (the Aztecs), or the blame heaped on Columbus as if he brought all this on, or the idea that somehow if he hadn’t found the New World that it would never have been found and none of what followed would have happened.

Yet the fact remains that it was Columbus who opened up the New World, leading four separate expeditions over the years, and leaving the New World – and the whole world – fundamentally altered.  Arguably, all that happened would have taken place anyway without Columbus; it just would have taken place a few years later.  But that misses the point: it happened the way it did, and it all started with Columbus’s epic voyage.

He had led his small fleet of three ships west from Spain on August 3rd, and they departed the Canary Islands on the morning of September 6th.   They sailed westerly for 36 days, no maps, only a compass, a half-hour glass to mark the passing of time, a log to measure ship’s speed through the water, and the knowledge of the stars.  Columbus had a quadrant for obtaining an ‘altitude’ of a star, but he didn’t use it at sea, only ashore once he reached the West Indies.  But with just these simple tools, throughout his four voyages his navigation skills were remarkable, particularly in accurately finding his way back home to Spain.

Columbus was, in fact, a great explorer and leader, a man with the most of the traits needed for a great leader: a clear goal / vision, the intellect and drive to turn that vision into a real plan, the ability to communicate that vision and goal to those he needed to influence – in his case Ferdinand and Isabella (the King and Queen), a superb decision-maker with clear moral authority, and at least to some (the King and Queen), a charismatic man.

Whether he was all these things to the men who made up his crew isn’t really known, though there is some historical reporting that suggests that he was a demanding ship’s captain.  Given the times, and the traits of many who became sailors in that age, that is likely.  But, given what he was trying to do – sailing off the map so to speak (there were maps, they showed you could sail straight west to China, and they were well short on the real distance – and detail) – it is probably fair to say that he would not have accomplished anything if he had not been stern and demanding.

Columbus managed not only to convince the King and Queen to fund his voyages, he convinced men to sail with him, and then repeated his voyage 3 more times.  He remains one of the great ship captains, and great navigators of all time.  And in practical terms, he is still the discoverer of the New World.

What Columbus can teach us about leadership is, in many ways, the same thing that we can learn from many of the leading figures of history: Columbus was a driven - we might say obsessive - man, he was committed to his goal of reaching the Indies and was fearless – and tireless - in pursuing that goal.  But great leaders are often (usually) obsessive, single focused, committed, tireless in their chase.  They live and breathe their dream.  And if they are bright enough and talented enough, they can reach that goal.

Enjoy Columbus Day!


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