Three Tasks of Leadership


Three Tasks of Leadership:

Starring Christopher Columbus


by Jim Ollhoff, PhD




Introduction (and Disclaimers)

This article has to do with three leadership processes. Specifically, it discusses leadership tasks from a systemic perspective—using Christopher Columbus as a metaphor for effective leadership. The metaphor was first used by the late Edwin Friedman, a psychotherapist and rabbi, and one of the great system thinkers of the past decade. I’ve tried to explain his theory here, and perhaps expand it.

A caution before we go too far: A caution about the metaphor itself. Some people who have heard this metaphor have got stuck on the idea of Columbus as a leader, and not been able to go any further. They have believed that Columbus was a rotten guy, and so consequently have discounted the issues I’ve raised about leadership.

Well, let me say that Columbus was indeed a rotten guy. Columbus brought typhoid, syphilis, smallpox, and tuberculosis to the New World. He enslaved the people he found here. He was here four times, and died thinking he had found India. He was apparently ethnocentric, selfish, and egotistical. He was such a harsh governor of the West Indies that the Spanish, not particularly known for their justice and mercy, sent officials to the West Indies to arrest him and bring him back to Spain. As a list of accomplishments, it leaves something to be desired.

When we think of Columbus, many of us think of our grade school explanation “he discovered America.” However, we know the Vikings were here before he was. There’s even some scant evidence that other cultures—European and Asian—were here before he was. Furthermore, how do you “discover” a land where people are already living? The Native Americans already had a well-developed series of cultures here.

There are three processes, or ways of interaction, that every effective leader has… Columbus had all three of these. Consequently, Columbus was an effective leader—but not necessarily a good leader, or a moral leader. He was an effective leader, but not because he inspired people to be better than they were. He did not give individuals a greater vision for what they could become.

Sometimes great leaders are effective as well as giving great moral leadership, such as Ghandi or Martin Luther King. But effectiveness and morality are not the same thing. Sometimes, effective leadership comes without morality, as is the case with Christopher Columbus. But by the nature of his leadership, he was able to create a societal movement that helped Western Europe out of a deep emotional morass.


Some Historical Background on Columbus 

First, let’s have some context: The historical facts on Christopher Columbus.

Columbus was probably born in Genoa (Northern Italy) in 1451. Genoa was a busy port city, so he was probably exposed to ships and sailing from an early age. He began sailing ships in the mid-1470s, including with a fleet that was sailing to England, which was destroyed in a battle. Columbus managed to escape and swam to Lisbon in Portugal. Over the next years, he became a cartographer (a map maker).

Some people believe that Columbus sailed to Iceland, where he heard of the land mass to the west (the Vikings made encampments in North America in about 1000 AD). Historical rumors abound regarding whether Columbus possessed old Viking maps of the land to the west. He owned a copy of Marco Polo’s writings, and he studied it religiously.

By 1477 he and his brother lived in Lisbon, where they made maps. He married the daughter of a provincial governor.

In his cartography, Columbus became convinced that the world was smaller than it was, and that a trip to Asia would be a short voyage across the Atlantic (he was actually wrong on this idea; he thought his trip would last about a month across the Atlantic. It actually lasted two months). By the way, he knew, as all educated people of his day, that the world was round.

In 1484, Columbus proposed an idea to the king of Portugal, King John II. He suggested that the King fund Columbus to make the trek to Asia across the Atlantic. The king flatly rejected the idea (although the king secretly sent a ship to test Columbus’ route). Disappointed, Columbus left for Spain, to try to convince the Spanish royalty of his plan.

On the way to Spain, Franciscan monks became intrigued with the story of his proposed adventure. They formed alliances with him and gave him letters of support.

Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of Spain, were intrigued enough with Columbus’ proposal to call a commission to study the plan. After five years of study, the commission advised against Columbus’ plan (government bureaucracy was overly cautious in those days).

A year later, after more letters of support, Isabella summoned Columbus to her court. Columbus’ demands (wanting to become governor of new lands, and keep ten percent of the gold he finds) made Isabella, once again, reject his proposal. So Columbus left for France, to make the proposal to there. Isabella was persuaded by Columbus’ friends that she might be losing an opportunity, so she recalled him and finally granted his request.

So Columbus sailed with three ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. After a two-month voyage, on October 12, 1492, Columbus and his crew saw the new world. At the age of 41, Columbus landed on an island that he named San Salvador. He proclaimed, in front of a group of Native Americans, that they and their land were now the property of Spain.

After exploring several islands, the Santa Maria was wrecked on rocks. So, he established a colony on Haiti, using the material from the Santa Maria. Columbus and his two remaining ships, the Nina and the Pinta, started back to Spain in January of 1493. He was welcomed by the Spanish monarchs and invited him to share his adventures.

Columbus left for a second trip to the Americas, this time with seventeen ships. After a six week voyage, they sighted land on November 3, 1493. Columbus explored the lands for gold, using the Native islanders as slave labor. The native islanders were now quite understandably hostile, and the Spaniards were suffering from a variety of new illnesses. Without Columbus’ knowledge, twelve ships left for Spain (mutiny!). Columbus went on explored Cuba and Jamaica.

Columbus returned to Spain in March of 1496, where the monarchs were suspicious of his tactics and governorship. Columbus, as a gift to Isabella, had sent some of the natives back to Spain to be sold as slaves (Isabella sent them back).

His third trip to the Americas was supported less enthusiastically by the monarchs. They sent six (some historians say eight) ships with him in May of 1498. He explored Trinidad, and the what is now Venezuela. When he returned to his base, he again found a mutiny.

Back in Spain, Columbus’ enemies continued to try to convince the monarchs of Columbus’ ineptness and mismanagement. So, Spanish monarchs sent an official to see what was going on in the new world, and relieve Columbus of his position if necessary. Columbus was brought back to Spain in shackles.

Ferdinand and Isabella pardoned him. But Columbus wanted to go back to the Americas, which he was still convinced was Asia. The monarchs were not excited about funding another trip. They finally gave Columbus three old, leaky ships, and he sailed back to the Americas in May of 1502.

This time, as he explored the coast of what is now Panama, looking for the westward passage (ironically, he was only a few miles from the Pacific ocean). His ships had deteriorated and become unseaworthy, his crew was in mutiny, starving, and under attack by the indigenous people. Finally, Spanish officials came and brought Columbus back to Spain.

He arrived back in Spain in November of 1504, arrested, weak, and ill. Isabella, his primary supporter had died, and his letters to the king went unanswered. He died on May 20, 1506, still looking for vindication for what he believed was his unjust treatment. He still believed he had found a new route to Asia.


An Important Footnote About (Our View of) Columbus

Today, some people think of Columbus as a brutal, insensitive, ego-centric slave-trader who was more interested in gold than anything else. However, some of you may remember the days, only a few decades ago, when he was regarded as a hero.

It seems that every generation has remade the story of Columbus into their own image.

The land Columbus discovered was named after Amerigo Vespucci, a Spanish merchant who hitched a ride with Hojeda, a Spanish explorer. They used the maps that Columbus created to find the new world. Through an accident of fate, German mapmakers named the “new world” after Vespucci and not Columbus. Columbus, as a person, was virtually ignored for more than two hundred years.

Then, in 1770s, as the American colonists became increasingly angry at the British, the Americans sought a non-British hero. They found in the Italian-Portuguese-Spanish Christopher Columbus a man of vision and courage, a hero who could unite the colonies in their growing conflicts with England. Americans needed a hero that characterized their multi-ethnic (read: non-England) background.

In the 1890s, Columbus was remade. At the worlds fair, Americans were anxious to show their resourcefulness and ingenuity. He was held up as the bringer of progress, a visionary who explored new worlds. Christopher Columbus was the heroic archetype that themed the celebrations together. Americans wanted a hero that characterized their progress and achievement—and found that hero in Columbus.

In the 1930s, as the tide of War swelled in Europe, President Roosevelt designated October 12th each year to be Columbus day. Schools were to be the center of the celebrations. Americans needed a (non-German) hero that children could value, that would characterize the courage, commitment, patriotism, and moral grandeur of the society.

Today, in the early 21st century, those of Northern European heritage suffer the collective guilt of their near-genocide of the Native Americans and their forced slavery of Africans. Is it any surprise that we turn Columbus into an anti-hero? That we demonize him as the harbinger of brutality and insensitivity?

Perhaps Claudia Bushman’s observation is correct: She studied each generation’s view of Columbus, and remarks, “What we think of Columbus reflects what we think of ourselves.” Perhaps the question “was Columbus a rotten guy?” depends more on the emotional tone of own society than on our historical facts.

But we digress.


The State of the (Emotional) Union of Western Europe in the 1400s

Let’s have some more historical context: Life in the late 15th century prior to Columbus.

Life in the late 15th century was not a particularly fun period for Western Europe. In systemic terms, we say that Western Europe was “full of anxiety.” Events, moods, and attitudes had created a sense of uncertainty and despair.

The black death (1347-51) had decimated Europe. One-third of the population had died of the bubonic plague. Imagine one of every three people die. Imagine the emotional toll it took. Even economically, it shook the foundation of the European society. Death and disease were all around them.

Europe was land-locked by hostile enemies on all sides. Muslim armies and European armies were either fighting or in a tense cold war on all sides of the Empire. The crusades had been a miserable failure, as far as the Europeans were concerned. They had failed to “liberate the Holy Land.” And the One-Hundred Years War had been going on for, well, about a hundred years. War, destruction, and bloodshed were all around them.

The feudal age was ending. After the black death, princes, governors, kings, and emperors tried to shore up their power base. The princes were successful in getting more authority, while the emperor was unsuccessful—and in many ways became a figurehead. Cities were growing, and people were leaving the farms for the good jobs in the cities. There was a rise of national feeling—people began to see themselves as French or German, rather than a part of this tribe or that clan. The way people had defined themselves for a thousand years was changing.

Slaves were able to buy their freedom. With the job openings brought on by the black death, serfs could walk away from their indentured servitude and get a paying job in the next town. Knights no longer had control of the people around them. In fact, knights quickly became obsolete with the advent of gunpowder. The princes no longer wanted knights to fight their battles, they wanted the smart guys from the new universities who knew how to operate the cannons. The life people knew was ending.

Law was no longer a matter of whim of the most powerful person in the area. Roman law was reinstated, and so the law in one part of the country became the same law in another area.

People, once sure of where they fit into society, were no longer sure of their social status. No one was sure who was controlling what. The social strata that had been a part of western Europe for the last thousand years was disappearing.

And the church, the primary institution providing stability for the last thousand years, was now experiencing all sorts of problems.

One of the greatest hits the church took was the Avionon papacy. The papacy, located in Rome, felt that the French nobles were cheating on their taxes (the papacy was in the business of collecting taxes in those days). So the papacy moved itself to Avionon, France, so it could keep a better eye on those cheating French nobles. This left the Italian nobles feeling betrayed, so they elected their own pope. So, now there were two popes, both of which scorned and excommunicated the other. Finally, a council of bishops got together and said, “this is silly, we can’t have two popes.” So they elected their own pope, hoping the other two would resign. Neither did, so now there were three popes, all of which scorned and excommunicated the others.

Furthermore, the church was swamped with nepotism, bribery, and simony. The popes were having illegitimate children and appointing them to high offices. One of the popes was a pirate before he became pope. If the pope wouldn’t sign your legislation, then you walked across the street from the papal office to the papal forgery center, and got your legislation signed. Priests often were under-educated and ill-equipped to care for their churches.

The people of Europe wanted to get to India and China. From adventurers like Marco Polo and the men who came back from the crusades, people had heard stories of the wonderful technology of Asia—spices, silk cloth, etc. They wanted to get to East to trade, but couldn’t get there because of the barriers of the North African Muslims to the south, an uncrossable desert to the east, or a dangerous multi-year ocean voyage.

So, the Europeans were full of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. The life they knew was disappearing around them. War, pestilence, fire, plague, were a part of their daily life. They wanted to fix the church, but they couldn’t. They wanted to have get a stable social system, but they didn’t. They wanted to get to India and China, but they couldn’t figure out how. They wanted to “liberate” the Holy Land, but they couldn’t. They were stuck. They were stuck, but not just geographically. They were stuck in their thinking. They couldn’t think their way out of their problems. It was a time of high anxiety. The system was stuck.

And then along came Columbus.


Systems That are (Metaphorically) Full of Anxiety

Here’s a quick social science refresher on emotional fields…

Systems move on the basis of emotional fields. If the “mood” of the community is good, people generally behave in a differentiated, rational, and healthy manner. When the system is full of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, the system reacts negatively. In a high anxiety system, people tend to act dysfunctionally, from a “kill or be killed” mentality. When the system is full of anxiety, the system will act like a reptile acts, instead of acting in a rational, logical manner. High anxiety systems dig in and create defensive fortresses, seeing everything in an “us vs. them” mentality.

The more a social system is full of anxiety, the quicker it stops responding in creative ways. Anxiety-stricken systems operate reactively and defensively. The more a social system is full of anxiety, the more likely the decisions will be made based on emotions rather than rational thought. This is true of families, organizations, and societies.

The more a social system is full of anxiety, the more likely they will be unable to help themselves. They will try to find a way out of their anxiety-producing situations, but they will frequently be unable to do so. They want to get out of their anxiety, but they can’t. They’re stuck. The primary reason that systems get stuck is that anxiety-filled systems can’t think about questions in new ways. They keep thinking about the old questions, and never come up with new questions. Consequently, they can’t get new answers. They get stuck, and stuck systems can not pull themselves out of their own anxiety.

Being stuck is like an emotional quicksand or quagmire. The system can’t get out of old ways of thinking. The system will ask the same questions over and over, and always get the same answer. They’ll be unable to frame the question in new ways, so they just keep asking the same question. When they try to solve a problem, and it doesn’t work, they simply try the same solution, but try it harder. The system will think cause and effect—in a linear approach, rather than a systems approach.

When a society is stuck, with perceived attacks coming from all sides, they cannot get out of that kind of thinking with the same kind of thinking. They need a new way of thinking to get unstuck. It is what Albert Einstein said, “the questions of tomorrow cannot be answered with the information of today.” New thinking is needed, but the high anxiety prevents people from thinking in new ways.

Fifteenth century western Europe was anxiety-ridden and stuck. They tried to ask the same questions in the same way, and couldn’t get any new answers. They needed help to be unstuck.

Fifteenth century western Europe was stuck. Until Columbus.

Fifteenth century western Europe wanted to get to Asia. They wanted to get to the East, but couldn’t figure out how to get there. But Columbus framed the problem in a new way. He asked the question in a new way and got a new answer. Columbus said, “I can get to the East by sailing west.”


What Columbus (Really) Did

Columbus unstuck western Europe.

The anxiety of the society decreased rapidly after Columbus. Within a few decades of Columbus, art and literature had a revolution, with thinkers like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare; theology and church practice reformed, with thinkers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Ignatius of Loyala, and John Calvin; great technological advances came—such as the printing press and Johannes Gutenberg, sciences such as astronomy and physics boomed, with thinkers like Copernicus and Galileo. Philosophy broadened with thinkers like Erasmus. Medicine took a step forward with a rejection of medieval medical knowledge by Phillippus Paracelsus. Within a few decades of Columbus, the middle ages were over for Europe, and the renaissance was on.

What the European society found was that they didn’t want to go to India and China at all. They wanted to get to the New World. After Columbus, the society produced John Cabot, Ferdinand Magellan, and Juan Ponce de Leon. Within then few decades, Europeans were exploring all parts of the New World.

Columbus was a great leader—not because of his individual behaviors or the individual things he did. Columbus was a great leader because he inspired the imagination of a whole culture. He caused people to look at things in a new way. On the basis of his leadership, people were able to frame questions in a whole new way. He took a people who were full of anxiety, and gave them hope. Columbus broke through emotional barriers, so that people could see in new ways.

Columbus—through his adventurous vision, persistence in the face of sabotage, and differentiation—unstuck western Europe.


The State of the (Emotional) Union of the United States in the Early 21st Century

The United States is stuck. The emotional state of the United States today is very similar to the emotional state of western Europe in the 15th century.

Today, our society is full of anxiety—we worry about terrorism, crime, nuclear war, global warming, air pollution, racism, topsoil erosion, aging, the middle east, abortion, politics, the divorce rate, school violence, homelessness, flesh-eating bacteria, computer viruses, the disappearing tropical rainforests, deformed amphibians, antibiotic-resistant infections, the solvency of Medicare and social security, water pollution, the disappearing ozone layer, the stock market, the effects of Hollywood violence, the cost of living, asteroids hitting the earth, etc.

Our anxiety for all of that comes out in a variety of symptoms. We seek to blame something or someone—so we fixate on things like simplistic things, or we sue somebody whenever we are inconvenienced.

And our leaders don’t thoughtfully debate real issues like grownups. They engage in polarized debates. They fling verbal flashbangs and take extreme positions so they can appeal to their base. Rational discussion is no longer a possibility. They have taken two sides, and have dug into their positions like World War I trench warfare. Further, issues have become so “us-them” that people are only concerned whether “you are for us or against us.” Having an informed opinion isn’t important; it’s only important to know what side you’re on. These kinds of polarized positions only serve to increase the anxiety and fear.

When anxiety grows, we have an inability to think about problems in new ways. We get stuck in our thinking. We cannot reframe questions, and we cannot solve problems (when was the last time you heard any new thinking about the problems in the Middle East?). We are quick to blame—the problems we have are because of divorce; one-parent families; television; morality; congress, etc. We find scapegoats and try to fix the blame on that one thing for our complex social problems. This is characteristic of a family system or a society that is stuck.

We have a hard time, as a culture, stepping out of traditional assumptions and thinking in new ways. We have a hard time reframing the problems. Further, there is pressure not to think in new ways—Edwin Friedman calls this the “forces of togetherness.” People get assimilated into a position, and then they cannot think in new ways.

In our society today, this is one of the critical component of leadership: A leader is a person who can think in new ways, reframe questions, burst through emotional barriers, inspire imagination, and not get sucked back into the “forces of togetherness.” A real leader is aware of the anxiety, but not affected by it. This is differentiation at it’s best.


The Three Tasks of Leadership

Leaders, from a systems perspective, need to do three things.

Adventurous Vision. First, they need to have a sense of adventurous vision. The leader knows the end point, the final goal or vision. But the leader also knows that getting there will require new thinking. When Columbus was just about to start out on his mission to the West, the Portuguese royalty asked him to serve as the Admiral of their navy. He declined, citing his vision and personal mission to sail to the West. The vision must be an adventure that is more important than safety. Poor leaders are concerned with safety and security. Great leaders are concerned with adventure and vision. True, new vision is always dangerous. But great leaders are less concerned with safety, and more concerned with adventure.

Columbus shared his vision at every opportunity. Many people were converts to his vision, caught up in the adventure of doing what no one else had done. Columbus was single-minded in his vision.

The problem with the “vision” of many people is that it is simply a regurgitation of old patterns. There is no new thinking, just a repackaging. Adventurous vision is to generate something new—not something new for newness sake, but something new that will meet the new needs of the new system.

Sometimes people will extol the virtues of “thinking outside the box.” Too often, this is just a synonym for sloppy, random thinking. Adventurous vision is new thinking that is clearly directed toward the final goal.

Strong visions, however, also will produce enemies. Columbus had his share of enemies, who spoke frequently to the monarchs about their views. To the fearful and sloppy thinkers, single-minded vision are “obsessions.” Assertiveness, to the poorly differentiated, is aggressiveness and rebellion. Today, as in the days of Columbus, the poorly differentiated will always try to sabotage leaders.

Persistence in the Face of Sabotage. Secondly, leaders need to be persistent in the face of sabotage. New thinking and new action will always bring sabotage. Always. The intensity of the sabotage is related to the amount of anxiety in the system. Usually, people in organizations don’t sit in smoke-filled basement rooms and discuss how to sabotage the new initiative. No one is intentional about it. But the sabotage emerges from the system.

Leaders need to say the same message over a long period of time. Columbus kept his vision his entire life—from his days of his map building, to moving from Portugal, Spain, and almost France—in search of someone who would help him with his personal mission. He shared with everyone he met—from priests to royalty—his vision. Through this persistence, he was able to weaken the resistance and ultimately facilitate change.

Differentiation. Third, and perhaps most importantly, leaders need to be differentiated. They need to understand the fear and uncertainty in the system, without being influenced by it. Differentiation is to be understand when to take responsibility and when not to get involved. Differentiation is knowing where the boundaries are.

Differentiation is to stay connected to the followers, but remain independent of them. It is to listen to their issues, but not feel compelled to instantly change the vision because of the complaints. If the leader is embedded with the followers, then the leader cannot lead. Conversely, if the leader is too far out in front of the followers, that is not effective leadership either. Finding that middle ground is being differentiated.

In other words, leaders need to articulate their position, their vision, and their goals, but still remain connected to everyone else—particularly those who don’t agree with their position.

The leader needs to listen to other people, to truly listen to a variety of points of view. A leader who says “my way or the highway” is just as poorly differentiated at the leader who says “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” Being differentiated does not mean that we reject other points of view. We simply need to know where we stand—but also to recognize that the stance may change over time or with better information.

Another part of self-differentiation is to be calmly non-reactive. Leaders must not be affected by the anxiety around them. This doesn’t mean they are inactive. It means they don’t get caught up in an intense emotional reactivity. They are non-anxious and non-reactive, responding to issues rationally and intentionally. When there is a crisis or someone has a meltdown, they respond calmly, rather than react emotionally.


Summary Thoughts: What Leaders Today Need (to do for Society)

When leaders have an adventurous vision, persistence in the face of sabotage, and are differentiated, they can inspire people. They can help a closed and anxiety-ridden system open up and think in new ways. They can inspire imagination, facilitate serendipity, and help generate new ways of thinking.

Leadership is not about handy techniques, specialized knowledge, or aggressive quickness. Leadership is about the creativity that facilitates vision, the ego-strength that facilitates persistence, and the emotional maturity that facilitates differentiation.

Traditional leaders like to think about change. Usually, however, for the traditional leader, change can come only by changing others. For a systemic leader, changing other is not one of the options on the menu. Systemic leaders seek to change themselves—to be more differentiated, more persistent, and more visionary. In fact, changing ourselves is all that we can change. From the systemic perspective, only differentiated leaders can bring about change.

A leader is a person who can think in new ways, reframe questions, inspire imagination, and not get sucked into the forces of togetherness. A leader sees, and breaks through, emotional boundaries. A leaders shares an adventurous vision persistently, even in the face of sabotage. A leader stays attentive to the emotional field, but is not controlled by it. A leader maintains boundaries and articulates where they stand, but also remains connected to those that don’t agree. A leader expects and prepares for sabotage from the forces of togetherness.

In a 15th century world, terrified of crossing the Atlantic, Columbus said, “I’ll do it.” Enormous amounts of pressure tried to keep him from doing it. Through his adventurous vision, his persistence in the face of sabotage, and his differentiation, he was able to change an anxiety-filled system. We need some of those kind of leaders today.


References and Bibliography

Bushman,  C. (1992). America discovers Columbus: How an Italian explorer became an American hero. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Friedman, E. (1996). Reinventing Leadership . New York: Guilford Press.

Friedman, E. (1985). Generation to generation: Family process in church and synagogue. New York: Guilford Publications.

Friedman, E. (1999). A failure of nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix. Bethesda, MD: The Edwin Friedman Estates.


By Jim Ollhoff, PhD, 2011




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