Book Notes: “Chains of Command” in Jamestown

Unity of command is crucial for the success of an organization, yet the colonists settling Jamestown seemed to be actually trying to make it hard on themselves.  In fact, the colony nearly failed several times as a result of their strange approach to establishing leadership.  Here’s what they did, and what we can learn from them so that our own teams are focused and productive.

Jamestown - James Horn

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Seven Names in a Box

James Horn tells the story in his book A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America.   In late 1606, three ships carrying 144 people left England bound for the Virginia coast.  They were to begin the first permanent English colony in the new world that would eventually be called Jamestown.

When the ships sailed, Christopher Newport was the designated leader to get the expedition to the shores of Virginia.  But once they arrived, nobody knew who was going to be in charge, except the members of the founding Virginia Council back in England.

The Council had pre-selected the future leaders of the colony, and sealed their names in a locked box which they gave to Newport.  The box was not to be opened until the ships arrived at their destination.

Horn speculates that this strange arrangement was to keep all members of the gentry committed to the undertaking.  If some of them knew that they would not be included in the ruling council when they arrived, it was likely that they would quit the expedition.  Without their support, the colonists might not be able to sail at all.

“Chains” of Command??

But what was the result?  The arrangement increased the uncertainty in the men’s minds.  Instead of a clear leadership structure, these soldiers, sailors, politicos and gentlemen were left to jockey for position.  Who would be part of the council?  Who among those would be elected President?  Who would be excluded?  How should they prepare for arrival in the New World?

As Julie Beck writes so well, uncertainty fuels anxiety, which people deal with it in different ways.  Those who don’t tolerate uncertainty well spend a lot of time comparing themselves to others in an effort to see how they are doing.  We see this happening aboard ship in the Atlantic, and things were not going well.

Uncertainty fuels anxiety; the leader brings clarity through vision. Click To Tweet

Not even half way to Virginia, petty jealousies, imagined affronts, and minor acts of insubordination or strong speech were rapidly magnified.  One of the likely future leaders, Captain John Smith, was already “restrained as a prisoner,” accused of insubordination, plotting mutiny, and threatening to “usurpe the government…and make himselfe kinge.”

Maybe those weren’t the “chains” of command that the founders had in mind?  By the time they arrived in Virginia, Newport had even erected a gallows and was preparing to execute Smith.  Only intervention by others on board prevented it.

Opening the Box…

When they finally opened the box, they learned that there were to be only seven men on the council.  Some were chosen because of their connections to fund raisers or influential politicians back in England.  Some had previous colonial experience (the failure at Roanoke).  Some were appointed essentially as informants to influential politicians back in England.  One was even suspected later to be a spy for the Spanish.  Most surprising of all was the name of the man appointed to lead them all.

Opening the box did not make things better, it made them worse.

The limited size of the council encouraged factionalism and out and out resentment among the men who were excluded from the organized leadership of the colony.  And from this very unpromising beginning came years of squabbling, divided purpose, back-biting, recrimination, and acrimony.

Was the priority to be defense of the colony or the search for gold?  Planting or exploring? Is it a good idea to trade weapons for food with the local natives?  That the colonists got anything done at all is a wonder.  But they suffered greatly in the process, and the colony teetered on the brink of failure for years.

Unity of Command – The Takeaway

We can learn a lot from the odd approach to leadership taken by the the founders of Jamestown.

Establish a clear leadership structure.   This is a critical task.  Anything that clouds the process or introduces uncertainty in the leadership structure will increase anxiety, unease, and encourage people to put personal agendas over organizational goals.

Take the long view.  Solving a short-term problem with an expedient might make things worse in the long run.  Studies even show that people would rather get certain bad news now than endure the possibility of getting bad news later. If there is bad news to deliver, go ugly early, get the leadership right, and go from there.

Don’t wait to set the leadership environment.  The leaders of the colony could have organized themselves while aboard ship so that their efforts were unified once they landed.  Instead, they were left to wonder, speculate, and then had to sort themselves out only after they arrived, losing time that they could not afford to waste.

Unity of Command enables unity of effort.   When the command structure is clear the vision can be made clear, and it becomes possible for the organization to focus its efforts on getting things done.  It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be differences of opinion; in fact there should.  It’s just that once a decision is made, everyone works together to make it happen.

Unity of command and vision enables unity of effort. Click To Tweet

James Horne’s book on Jamestown proved to be a riveting read.  He has an ability to tell the story in a way that brings the key players alive, explores their motivations, and exposes their strengths and weaknesses as both leaders and people.  Along the way, he destroys some myths (sorry, Disney!) and provides a revealing perspective of events through the eyes of the Native Americans, who had no choice but to try to coexist with the disorganized intruders.

Well worth the read, and if you are ever in a position to establish the leadership of an organization, maybe avoid the box method.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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