Three Surprising Leaders Who Demonstrated the Importance of Flexibility

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Brian O’Neill. Brian is a freelance writer out of Chicago who blogs for Engaged Leadership.  He enjoys history and correcting people.]

History provides us with many examples of leadership.  Whether you talk about Churchill, Steve Jobs or Abraham Lincoln, one thing they have in common is the ability and wisdom to adapt to the circumstances while still keeping their eye on the goal.   History is also filled with rigid and inflexible types who might not bend, but almost invariably break.  However, history doesn’t always tell the full story.  This article will show three unlikely people who demonstrated the theory of flexibility in leadership.

The Kind and Progressive Captain Bligh

Captain William Bligh of the Bounty has come down to us in history and Hollywood as a cruel, unbending, and tyrannical leader.   After all, good leaders rarely become synonymous with the word “mutiny”.

Hollywood has grossly simplified the story.   While lashings were a typical punishment for the British Navy of the time, Bligh famously avoided them as much as possible.  He used the lash more than the today’s office manager, but not by the standards of the 18th-century.  He was fanatical about discipline, but that led to making sure his men were well-fed and well-rested, not overworked.

In a study on flexibility, researchers at the University of Albany showed how the “flexible leadership theory” pointed to three virtues that increase performance: efficiency, adaptability, and human capital”.  Bligh valued all three of these.  He valued human capital far more than nearly any other British commander of the time.

So, then: what happened?  Due to a weather-based delay his ship got to Tahiti at the wrong time, and had to linger for five months.  Lingering in paradise seemed better to many of the men than heading back to England on a ship, no matter how tolerant the captain.  Even this doesn’t reflect poorly on Bligh: he had a job, and he strove to complete it.  It is worth noting that the majority of the crew stuck with Bligh, despite the lure of Tahiti.  It also is not incidental that of the 22 men left in an open boat in the middle of the Pacific, Blight got all but one home safe.

Benedict Arnold and Leadership in Extreme Circumstances

OK, now we are getting into people who are more justly reviled by history.  Benedict Arnold is best known for turning over an American fort to the British, and subsequently switching sides.  But he had that command due to his bravery and leadership, which many think gave the Americans a chance to win the war in the first place.

Arnold’s great moment came in the Battle of Valcour Island, in Lake Champlain.  The enormous, well-tested British Navy was steaming down toward New York, with an eye on crushing the still-young revolution.   Arnold saw this, and looked to gather America’s fresh-water navy, except that America didn’t have one.  This did not deter Arnold, who gathered resources from all over to build a small and agile navy with an eye on delaying the British fleet.

The West Point Military Academy commissioned a study on leadership in extreme circumstances, and identified 5 typologies leaders had to be aware of.  These were “magnitude of consequences, form of threat, probability of consequences, location in time and physical or psychological-social proximity”.  Arnold was aware of all these.  He knew that the consequences of failure were enormous.  Most importantly, he knew his enemy, or the “form of threat”.   The opposing British admiral, Sir Guy Carleton, suffered from an abundance of caution, and that if Arnold could damage him, he might return to base for the winter.  This is exactly what happened.  Arnold knew that he couldn’t win the battle, but he identified the goal and achieved it.

Leaders in business today mostly don’t have the same obstacles, but they can still learn the lessons from Arnold: adapting to the circumstances, and keeping the long-term goal (winning the war, maximizing employee performance) intact while making sure the little steps (identifying motivational needs, opposing navies) are the focus.  Just don’t later turn over secrets.

Josef Stalin And Not Throwing Good Money After Bad

Well, we’ve clearly left the realm of ambiguity.  There are vanishingly few instances in business, or anywhere in life when asking yourself “what would Stalin do” is a viable question.   He is responsible for the deaths of countless millions and the immiseration of countless millions more.  His cruelty echoes through the decades.

But he did show surprising psychological sophistication in World War II.  Granted, this was after trusting Hitler.  This was after purging the Red Army of nearly every qualified officer for fear that they would rise against him or prove more popular than he, which left his military in shambles when the Germans invaded.

But while he did make it very difficult for his army to stand up to the Nazi war machine in the early days of Operation: Barbarossa, he quickly adjusted.  He realized that the average Russian, who had been a victim of purges and starvation and terror for decades, would fight neither for the Soviet Union nor for the glory of Josef Stalin.  So, as Edwin Hoyt explained in 199 Days: The Battle For Stalingrad, Stalin reimagined his propaganda to convince the masses that they were fighting for the Motherland and the Church against the godless Nazis, which was a neat trick.

In doing this, Stalin stopped throwing good money after bad.   That was different.  In the link above, throwing good money after bad is defined as an “escalation of commitment to a failing course of action”, which is what it would have been if he continued to urge people to fight under the same flag.  But he didn’t, and also reinstated talented generals who he hadn’t, um, already had killed.  And the Russians- not the Soviets- turned back the Nazis, and with them the tide of the war.

Leaders today should be willing to do that.  It is incredibly difficult to admit to a mistake, but the other course is to keep spiraling down the same hole.   A different course of action is far less risky than continuing the path of failure.

So, one can see that there are applicable lessons in almost any situations.  While you can learn these lessons, it is important to note that one shouldn’t begin a meeting with “As Stalin said…”


  1. says

    Bligh was in command for four mutinies: the Bounty (1789), the Spithead mutiny (1797), the Nore Mutiny (also 1797) and the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales (1808). While the Spithead and Nore mutinies were more generally due to the conditions in the Royal Navy than Bligh’s personal actions, he was the primary cause of the Rum Rebellion.

    Yet, Bligh could be quite the leader when needed. The open boat voyage you refer to is dramatically told in “Men Against the Sea” (by Nordhoff and Hall who wrote “Mutiny on the Bounty”) Bligh eventually made Vice Admiral.

    Like most of us, Bligh did have a degree of leadership adaptability. His failings were due to resistance to feedback. He also had a strong sense of entitlement that could trap him in his pride.

    • says

      Awesome details Allen. Thanks so much for sharing. I have a friend who is re-examining mutinies and piracy for leadership/innovation lessons. This helps even more.