Leadership lessons from Black Bart, the most successful pirate ever

14 04 2011

What can one pirate captain learn from another?

Pirate captains, the really successful ones that is, had something in common with the ancient Polynesian voyagers, arguably the best navigators of the open ocean. In the worlds of the late Micronesian Navigator Mau Piailug, successful leadership requires three qualities:

  • Fierceness
  • Strength
  • Wisdom

You don’t normally think of pirates and wisdom in the same sentence. But the really great pirate captains did indeed have their share of wisdom.

The top-earning pirate captain of all time

Bartholomew Roberts, sometimes known as Black Bart, was the most successful pirate of all time. Roberts was a Welsh pirate who raided ships off America and West Africa between 1719 and 1722.

The most successful pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy, Black Bart left Captain Kidd, BlackBeard and BlueBeard in the dust!

Two years after Black Bart was made captain he had:

# Accumulated over 51 million pounds worth of treasure

# Taken close to 470 ships throughout the Americas, Africa and Europe

Accounting for two centuries of inflation, this would be a pretty good track record for a self-made man even by Silicon Valley standards.

Black Bart was strong, fierce, and apparently pretty wise too.

The wisdom of mandatory goodwill to fellow shipmates was well understood by most pirate captains. Essentially, pirates had their own version of Aloha, part of the value system that held ancient Polynesian crews together on voyages of exploration around the Pacific in the days of celestial navigation.

Pirate captains had a strict code of conduct for their crew, and exceptions were not tolerated. Here is an example from The Pirate Code of Conduct – Bartholomew Roberts Shipboard Articles of 1721:

ARTICLE VIII – None shall strike another on board the ship, but every man’s quarrel shall be ended on shore.

As with Polynesian voyaging captains, so with pirate captains, no fighting amongst yourselves during the mission.

In the enterprise computer systems business, vendors sometimes forget that customers depend on a group of vendors, using substitute as well as complementary products together in a large system that supports the business.  When vendors compete against each other in ways that compromise the customer’s business continuity, it’s not pretty.

I believe that uber-Pirate Black Bart and legendary celestial navigator Mau Piailug would advise vendors the same way;

  • Be strong enough to think big picture.  Accept the nature of the system.  Compete for a greater joint outcome, not to cut the legs off a rival.
  • Think wisely about the right and wrong people to fight.  Collaborate on creating a level playing field for competition. Compromise with competitors on the rules of play with the best interest of the customers at heart.

Be strong and wise as well as fierce.

A wise leader doesn’t suddenly say to customers and partners,

“I’ve made an arbitrary decision in my own self interest: obey or walk the plank.”

Enterprise systems is an interdependent web of existence. Mindful of this, a wise leader provides incentives to make certain choices and provides adequate time for change.




One response

18 04 2011
Leadership lessons from Arbella Captain John Winthrop, first governor of Massachussets Bay Colony « NinaLytton.com

[…] is true of the Polynesian voyagers who settled the Hawaiian Islands and Black Bart, the most successful captain in the Golden Age of Piracy, is also true for the John Winthrop, […]

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