October 12 is Columbus Day – the day we commemorate Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. This was obviously a great and historic moment that shaped today’s global environment as we know it. Yet, as I researched the history behind this clearly grand result, I found that it was the outcome of bad leadership. In wrestling with the question of how good things can come from bad leadership, we can discover the true meaning of good leadership. I won’t rehash the arduous and dangerous journey of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria here, but I will summarize three examples of bad leadership that produced this historic outcome.
(1 ). He lied in order to get the gig. Columbus was able to gain the sponsorship and support of the monarchs of Spain because he was grossly inaccurate about the distance between Europe and Asia following a western route over the Atlantic. This made it more likely that he could receive financial support for something that had a high return on investment for his benefactors.
(2). He claimed personal credit for another individual’s accomplishment. Barry Lopez in his book Rediscovery of North America relates the details of this historic moment. A lookout Juan Rodriquez Bermeo spotted land a few hours after midnight on October 12, 1492. However, Columbus claimed he saw it earlier and “… took for himself the lifetime pension promised the first man to sight land.”
(3). He forgot where he was going and was distracted by greed and potential benefits of exploitation of the natives. He made a total of four voyages to a land he first believed to be the biblical Garden of Eden. The potential of a safer route to Asia was overshadowed by the possible acquisition of gold and slave labor.
These examples fly in the face of: truth, the Grace of Leadership; humility, the Virtue of the Hero Leader; and altruism, the inspiration of the Muse of Leadership. Yet, good results came out of this. Why?
We get twisted up when we take leadership, good or bad, out of the context of those who are served or those who are followers. Barbara Kellerman in her book Bad Leadership calls this part of the web of significance – a tangled tapestry that consists of the leader, the follower, and the context.
Jim Baaker in I Was Wrong describes the darkness of bad leadership that was revealed to him through the prism of prison bars. Fueled by a painful boyhood tragedy, he admitted he preached a false doctrine. He forgot about his divine calling and sought satisfaction and destructive ways. In his many hours of captive despair, he discovered true leadership and offers a warning to others:
“The mistakes I made are still being perpetuated in ministries, churches, businesses, marriages, and families. The temptation to have more, do more, earn more, build bigger, emphasize material things, rather than spiritual, protect the image regardless of the cost, look the other way rather than confront the wrong …”
These few words don’t give black or white answers about the truth of good leadership, but in them, we will find a compass that helps point the way to our own individual leadership journey.