Black Sails and the dynamics of power

blacksails-tumblr-avatarI recently discovered  the TV series ‘Black Sails‘.  Its a show on Starz about pirates in the Bahamas during the golden age of piracy.  It’s a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson‘s classic novel ‘Treasure Island‘.  If you’ve read that book or seen film adaptations of it, then you’re familiar with the characters Long John Silver, Captain Flint, and Billy Bones.  This is a show, ostensibly set about 20 years before the events of Treasure Island, that shows these characters in their hey day.

One of the main characters is Captain James Flint, brilliantly played by Toby Stevens.  Flint is often discussed in a hushed fearful tone in Treasure Island, despite being dead for years by the time of that story.  But the Flint of this series is very much alive, and although a character capable of calculated and breathtaking ruthlessness, has complex motivations and a tragic back story that are unexpectedly sympathetic.

Another major character is John Silver, well played by Luke Arnold.  Silver joins the crew in the first episode, and we quickly see that this is an early version of the charismatic, opportunistic, but treacherous figure of Treasure Island.  In addition to those from Treasure Island, the show has a number of characters loosely based on historical pirates, notably Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny.

The continuity between the show and the classic novel is a bit loose.  The show is set around 1715 in and around Nassau, to place it firmly in the “golden age of piracy” and during a time when Nassau effectively served as a pirate headquarters of a sort.  However, a Stevenson purist might point out that, although the book avoids naming the exact year of the story, clues in the book set it in the late 1750s or later, which would actually put an implausible 40 years between the stories.

That said, the production values of Black Sails are excellent.  The atmosphere of 1715 Nassau and on the sea vessels has an authentic feel.  The stories are well written, dramatic, and with characters having realistic motivations and dilemmas.  One key factor that the show deals with, rarely mentioned in pirate dramas, is that pirates need a market to sell their plunder.  Pirates of the Caribbean, this is not.

But the thing I find most interesting about the show is its frank portrayal of the dynamics of power and authority.  The captains, who are elected to their positions, are constantly concerned about how their crews will react to their orders, with the possibility of being deposed always present.  Many leaders on the show, such as Flint, have to balance their own agendas against the needs and desires of their crew, their partners, and other players in the Nassau society.

This is a welcome change from the way that power is usually portrayed in fiction.  Often organizations are portrayed as simply an extension of the leader’s desires, who usually hold their position due to their aura of greatness, vision, or some other idealistic characteristic.  The idea that each of that leader’s followers are following for their own particular reasons is rarely mentioned.

But in Black Sails, every captain is aware that failure to find prizes for his crew (who work for a share of the profits) will eventually lead to his replacement.  Every captain has to be careful about antagonizing Eleanor Guthrie, the Nassau business woman who purchases and resells their plunder.  (And Guthrie herself has to be careful about antagonizing the captains.)  Every captain, when considering a new course of action, particularly a risky one, is aware that they will have to sell it to their crew.

On the show, the idea that everyone must have a vested interest in a course of action is a stark reality.  This is easy to see on a show about pirates, about criminals, who are generally each looking out for their own interests.  (Although loyalty, friendship, and love do play crucial roles in the society depicted.)

But the dynamics on the show are simply a starker version of what any leader has to deal with, whether it be in war, business, or politics.  Leaders often find themselves at the intersection of external pressures from customers, partners, and competitors, and internal pressures from their organization.  Every leader has to balance these pressures.  Failure to do so adequately can often result in their position becoming untenable.

The reality is that most leaders are better thought of as middlemen between their followers and external interests.  Often their power and skill come from navigating the dynamics of those pressures.  A metaphor I’ve often found helpful is to think of a leader as a surfer on a wave.  If you’d never seen a wave before, it might be tempting to think of the surfer as controlling the wave.  But the reality is that the surfer’s skill and energy are simply involved in staying on top of that wave.  Likewise, a leader has to competently surf on top of those often competing interests.

It’s not particularly controversial that this is the reality in democracies, but, although the thresholds of trouble may be higher, even kings and dictators have to understand it, at least if they want to hold on to power.  Business managers, while not elected, often have to be aware that their employees may leave if they don’t take their interests into account.  And military leaders always have to be aware of the limits of what orders their troops will accept.

This is one reason why I often think it is usually misguided to try to convince politicians of things.  If you want a politician to do something,  you must convince their power base, their constituents (i.e. voters) and, if possible, their financiers.  Any competent politician is far more concerned about what their constituents will accept or tolerate than about some abstract idea of what they should do.  The ones who aren’t, usually don’t get re-elected.

In our society, successful leaders are almost always pulled by the sentiment of the people.  Often, when it appears that they’re not, it’s usually a case of a leader having a better understanding of where the sentiments of their constituents are than the current conventional wisdom.

Anyway, if you’re okay with the language, violence, and explicit sex scenes, which most cable shows have these days, Black Sails is a series worth checking out.  It has a surprising amount of depth.  Season 2 is currently playing on Starz, but I had to buy season 1 off of Amazon.

13 thoughts on “Black Sails and the dynamics of power

    1. I think so. There’s nothing you need to know about TR to enjoy it. Knowing TR just gives you some insights into the eventual fates of a few of the characters. That said, TR isn’t a long read and there are tons movie adaptations out there.


  1. Thanks for the overview! I’ve seen the ads, but I completely lack the fascination for pirates that so many share, and I’m not big on historical fiction (plus my TV viewing schedule is pretty full right now). But it’s nice to have a feel for what the show’s actually about.

    I do think the dynamics of leadership vary considerably depending on the size of the constituency. The captain of a ship, or the manager of a large-ish deparment, I think deals with things on a very different level than, say, a king or a president.

    A key element, as you suggest, seems to be the need to inspire motivation rather than demand it. This requires keen instincts into what drives and motivates people. Good leaders learn quickly what they can, and cannot, do with their people! (I can’t say the surfer analogy works very well for me — leaders do steer, motivate, and inspire — surfers just ride. 🙂 )

    I quibble just a bit on the idea of politicians as leaders. In theory (ha!), they are our representatives — we, in a very real way, are supposed to lead them (which you do get into). I don’t think of Congress people — even in theory — particularly as leaders. (I do think that of the President, and one complaint I’ve had about the current one is his skills in that area.)


    1. Thanks Wyrd.

      Just to clarify on the surfer analogy, the wave would be both internal and external interests. So, in the case of a departmental manager (a role I’m intimately familiar with), it involves balancing the demands of other departments, bosses, customers, and staff expectations, aspirations, and fears. Is there room for those managers to have a vision? Absolutely. But successful visions usually involve ways to better meet the demands of the various constituencies, and motivation and inspiration are usually used in selling that vision to those constituencies.

      I agree that few people see Congress as leaders, but even the President is usually heavily constrained in their choices. The Presidents historically perceived as the strongest are the ones who proposed initiatives that most of the country wanted. When the country is divided (as it pretty much is today), it makes the job of the President much more difficult. (In that light, I judge Obama’s leadership more favorably than it sounds like you do.) For a fascinating description of the limitations and constraints of Presidential power, I highly recommend Richard Neustadt’s book ‘Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents’.


      1. I, too, am familiar with the role of managers. I think you might be conflating management tasks and leadership tasks. I understand the surfer analogy applies to all types of interests, but it lacks any component of leadership — or even management, really. (I’ll go out on a limb and guess you’ve never surfed? I think if you had you might see why it doesn’t work too well for me.)

        One thing I do like about the analogy is how a wave and smash you against the bottom and grind you into the sand and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t even tell which way is up! You just hope you figure it out before you run out of air. Being in a leadership (or management) role can certainly have that consequence!

        A true leader (in my eyes) does have a vision and does actually lead his constituency towards the goal of accomplishing it. With Selma in the news, MLK, Jr. is a good example of a true leader. So were some of our presidents. Henry Ford, Thomas Watson (IBM) and Lee Iacocca were also what I’d consider true leaders.

        FWIW: I do understand the tough row Obama has had to hoe, but I still am disappointed in his inability to lead his own party. I’ve been disappointed time and again by the way he speaks. Where’s Campaign Obama? That’s the man I elected. If you saw his recent speech at the Selma event… that was the man I wanted to see more of. Parts of that speech were awesome!

        But, obviously, and especially on these topics, this is totally just my own view.


        1. I’ve never really bought into the concept, somewhat popular in recent years, that you can have competent management without leadership, or vice versa, so you’re right, probably from your perspective, I am conflating them.

          I suspect you’ll intensely disagree, but every “true leader” I’ve ever researched turned out to be a canny politician who knew how to navigate the pressures I described. How strong we usually perceive them to have been depends on the landscape they had to work with and their skill in seizing on opportunities. I found it to true for military, community, business, or any other type of leader who rose to be top of a large organization or movement. There are occasionally leaders who rise up without those skills, but they usually flame out pretty quickly.

          In Obama’s case, he’s had to deal with a divided congress, a divided Democratic party, and frankly a divided populace. Given the landscape he’s had to work with, I give him decent marks. I’ll agree that he could have been better. In particular I thought he put far too much trust in Larry Summers over Christina Romer, a decision that has had reverberations throughout his Presidency. But in general, I don’t think he could have been as better as many assume.

          Absolutely, this is just us trading views 🙂


          1. I completely agree good managers are also good leaders! At The Company they recognized the need for good leadership and forced everyone to take various classes — some of which were valuable, some not so much. They even tried to instill (as in forced classes 🙂 ) leadership values in employees with no subordinates.

            Surprise! I also completely agree good leaders need political skills. There do seem two general types of political skills: cynical ones designed to maintain their own position and power; and positive ones oriented toward achieving goals. It’d be nice to live in a world that didn’t require the former, but that doesn’t seem to be this world.

            I do appreciate the challenges facing Pres. Obama, and I don’t want to give the impression my overall evaluation is negative. I’m just disappointed when I think of what he promised to be compared to what he turned out to be. (I’d say he’s actually a good example of someone lacking the political skills to be a good leader.)

            And while I understand the dynamics of why the Republicans so easily march in lockstep while the Democrats are, as they say, like herding cats, there comes a time to band together to get good work accomplished.

            That, in fact, is a good definition of a great leader: one who can get people to work together to accomplish good work. Obama, like Jimmy Carter, is a highly intelligent and thoughtful individual. But he lacks that essential leadership ability to bring people together.

            Carter, as you may know, has been flat out amazing since he left office. Habitat for Humanity and his work in Africa — just incredible. I’m looking forward to see what Pres. Obama does once he “retires.”


        2. It sounds like we agree more than I thought.

          I think Obama is a far better politician than Carter, though not as skilled as naturals like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. (I do agree that Carter really found his calling after the Presidency.) Obama has been doing a pretty good job of tying the Republicans into knots since they got the majority. In many ways, having a smaller more homogeneous group of Democrats with a divided Republican majority is proving to be a much better landscape for him.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. It seems like the primary trait of a “true leader” would be something like “do what’s actually best for X while lying skillfully enough to keep the troops in line, regardless of their interests.”

          Nixon and Clinton come to mind and, if you judge presidents on their foreign policy, that sort of person does function.


  2. Well done! You’ve actually made me interested in watching a pirate show! Unfortunately I don’t get Starz or I’d watch it tonight.

    Power sounds like way too much responsibility for me. I think I’ll stick with following. 🙂


    1. Thanks! It’s a show worth checking out whenever you get access to it.

      Leadership is definitely harder than it looks. But I think it, like just about anything else, is a job that can be learned. Some people definitely have a natural affinity for it, but I’ve rarely met anyone who couldn’t be a good one if they wanted to. That said, I respect anyone with the good sense to avoid it if they’re not interested.

      Liked by 1 person

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