What does Christopher Columbus’s life teach us about business leadership?

Columbus Day is celebrated the 2nd Monday of October – a memory of the first non-native American to come to our shores and stay with a permanent presence, paving the way for European expansion.  Columbus was an interesting and colorful character demonstrating some admirable qualities but also some qualities that are detractors for any successful endeavor.  What can business entrepreneurs and developers learn from dear old Chris?

Three positive characteristics demonstrated by Columbus necessary to entrepreneurship today

  1.  Columbus was determined and persistent. Not only did his native Italy and powerhouse Portugal decline his requests for resources for his voyage, but Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain were engulfed in a war, so refused Columbus until after the war.  After hanging around the Spanish court for years, waiting persistently, Columbus was finally resourced for the vision.  He did not give up.
  2. Columbus knew how to cope with failure.  The Santa Maria ran aground and sank on the first voyage, his first colony experienced a massacre, he was marooned in Jamaica for a year and he failed to bring spices and other valuables back to Spain.  He was a masterful leader and sea captain and was able to move beyond the failures, keep the goal in mind and accept failure as a part of life.
  3. He was a man of faith, seeing himself as called to spread the faith to the new lands he discovered. As a man of prayer, he depended on a higher power for strength for the day and wanted the inhabitants of the Americas who were unaware of a sovereign God to come to know him.

Three negative facts about Columbus which cause us to learn from him

But Columbus was far from perfect, and there is much to learn from his mistakes.

  1. He failed to focus on what he was good at. It is well known that Columbus was a skilled navigator, sea captain and visionary; however when the King of Spain offered him the governorship of the new colonies, he accepted it.  This representation of what later became known as “The Peter Principle” was a disaster. His skills did not include administration and he was eventually arrested and returned to Spain in chains.  He was not gifted, trained, nor skilled in the world of governance and politics.  He should have stayed with what he was good at.
  2. He lacked integrity and made promises he could not keep – telling his crew that they would all get rich.  He promised the first person to sight land a sizable reward but when Rodrigo de Triana sighted what is now known as the Bahamas, Columbus did not reward him but kept the reward to himself.  As with all of us, such a character flaw eventually catches up with us and ruins our relationships and our business.
  3. He did not see nor treat all people with respect.  In fact he saw the peoples of the Caribbean as potential slaves and brought some to Spain proclaiming them to be his biggest discovery.  Thankfully Queen Isabella rejected the idea.  Columbus did not see people created equal before God nor did he treat them fairly with equality, justice and respect.  He has a legacy as a slave trader.

As an important historical character, we remember Columbus this day on our calendar, but we can also learn about life, leadership, good and evil, our humanity, and character which glorifies God or character that brings Him disgrace.  The challenge for all business entrepreneurs, developers and leaders is to learn from history; even from the story of Christopher Columbus.

Larry W. Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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