By Patrick J. Murphy, Department of Management – Have you ever jokingly cried “Mutiny!” during a meeting? It’s not as taboo as shouting “Fire!”, but have you thought about why this term generates such passion? Mutiny has a rich history that continues today.
Mutiny is defiance of existing authority or leadership inside an organization by the organization’s members. It intends to influence operations via conflict, coordinated action, promotion of certain interests or seizure of power. Although these actions can transform authority structures or remove leaders, their aim is rarely to damage the organization. Of course, a mutiny may be woefully misinformed or end up failing badly, but the core intent is usually constructive and utilitarian.
My colleague Ray Coye
and I have researched mutiny extensively. In addition to being business school professors at DePaul, we are maritime service veterans with an interest in history. Our research about mutiny has won some major awards, and now we're turning it into a business book to be published in 2012 by Yale University Press.
For years, Coye and I have examined mutiny in organizations using lessons from historic cases on sailing ships. For four centuries, these vessels dominated commerce and trade in the Western hemisphere, and thousands of them were active during any given year. Throughout this period, mutinies in ships’ wooden confines were just as common as restructurings or layoffs in today’s companies. By contrast, today’s dominant form of commercial activity, the industrial organization, is only about 200 years old.
There are differences between modern organizations and sailing ships, but it would be foolish to downplay the similarities. In both settings, skilled people work together in a social context defined by management activity, resources, structures, objectives and strategies. In these contexts, mutiny emerges from the same human complexities. Whereas historic mutinies could be frighteningly violent, today's are social and intellectual. Surprisingly, modern mutinies are less sophisticated than historic ones. A historic mutiny could surgically transform flawed authority and improve the organization.
Mutiny and leadership are two sides of the same coin. You would probably agree that poorly executed leadership is not a positive thing. Would you also agree that well-executed mutiny is not a negative thing? Indeed, there are usually two sides, but a “good versus evil” approach by either one will generate uncertainty for all. Rather than framing the issue in terms of positive versus negative, try to understand mutiny as an immutable force of human nature that has evolved into a quieter expression in modern settings.Patrick J. Murphy is Associate Professor in the Department of Management at DePaul University. He can be reached through his website, profpjm.com.