Leadership lessons from Arbella Captain John Winthrop, first governor of Massachussets Bay Colony

15 01 2014

The great captains of open-ocean voyaging have one thing in common. They saw leadership as a moral responsibility for common welfare.  They fostered a value system that created shared wealth.

The great leaders of the open-ocean voyaging set standards by which today’s business and political leaders can be evaluated.

John Winthrop aboard the Arbella bound for the New World

What 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, captain of the Arbella and the first governor of the colony that became our country.

  • All had the very lives of their shipmates in their hands
  • All led from the values of inclusion
  • All created thriving relationships that led to rewards for all

Winthrop led the first large wave of migrants in 1630, and served as governor for 12 of the colony’s first 20 years of existence. His writings and vision of the colony dominated New England colonial development, influencing the government and religion of neighboring colonies.

During his voyage aboard the Arbella in the summer of 1630, Winthrop wrote his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. He ends the sermon with practical tactics for the shared endeavor to be a success, not a shipwreck:

“We must be knit together, in this work, as one man.

We must entertain each other in brotherly affection.

We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.

We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.

We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

Winthrop’s intent was to sustain the people on a long and dangerous voyage, and to prepare them for planting a new society in a perilous environment, but his practical wisdom is timeless. “Unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”took the country quite a long way.

The phrase, “city upon a hill,” is used to this day to symbolize certain essential characteristics of what Americans expect in their leaders.

John Winthrop rallied people around a common weal. This notion has applicability today in government and in business.

According to President Obama, debates about, say, healthcare, are about “more than just numbers on a page…..It’s about the kind of country we believe in.”  In the 50th state, where Obama grew up, values-based leadership is the societal norm and is understood to be multi-faceted.  On the mainland, a high-level debate about values can be quickly devolve to one polarizing issue.  Thinking about values, plural, is difficult but necessary.  To forget what sustains our interdependence as citizens is to forget who we are as Americans.

In the business realm, companies forget the common weal to their financial peril.    To forget the customers’ and business partners’ welfare is to forget what made a company successful in the first place.  If you believe you’re the master of the universe, you’ll find yourself with fewer and fewer friends.  IBM proved this in 1992, with the largest loss in US business history.

John Winthrop concluded his sermon with a warning to those seduced into a worship of material profits. To forget values such as justice and mercy is to forget the common weal. To forget the common weal is to forget the source of prosperity.  And to forget the source of prosperity is the kind of pride that inevitably leads to a fall.

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