Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Eclipses and their lessons for managers

In 1504, Christopher Columbus used fore-knowledge of a lunar eclipse to strike fear in the native Jamaicans in order to convince them to provide food for Columbus' crew.

By contrast, in 430 B.C., Pericles (pictured below) had a different problem. Plutarch writes that Athens was then at war with Sparta, the Athenians were suffering, and Pericles needed to take action:

Desiring to heal these evils, and at the same time to inflict some annoyance upon the enemy, he manned a hundred and fifty ships of war, and, after embarking many brave hoplites and horsemen, was on the point of putting out to sea, affording great hope to the citizens, and no less fear to the enemy in consequence of so great a force.
It was then, at least as Plutarch tells the story, that a solar eclipse caused panic in Pericles' fleet:
But when the ships were already manned, and Pericles had gone aboard his own trireme, it chanced that the sun was eclipsed and darkness came on, and all were thoroughly frightened, looking upon it as a great portent. Accordingly, seeing that his steersman was timorous and utterly perplexed, held up his cloak before the man's eyes, and, thus covering them, asked him if he thought it anything dreadful, or portentous of anything dreadful. "No," said the steersman. "How then," said Pericles, "is yonder event different from this, except that it is something rather larger than my cloak which has caused the obscurity?"
With his men calm, Pericles was able to continue his campaign.

In both stories, natural events strike fear into the populace and leaders were there to manage the fear.

In the modern world, the public can still be frightened, even if not by eclipses. For better or worse, it is cell phone radiation, nuclear power, or global warming that now play that role.

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