I 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.