LEADERS & SUCCESSInterview with Michael J Gelb
By CORD COOPER
Columbus grew up in Genoa, the Italian seaport, and lobbied various nations to back his exploration before finally setting sail in August 1492.
Maritime experts doubted him.
Peers labeled him a heretic.
Christopher Columbus bucked them all and won.
His idea that Asia could be reached by sailing west — with a New World discovered along the way — fell on deaf ears.
For seven years he sought approval for his voyage — and the financial backing of a world power.
When approval finally came, his biggest challenge lay head.
If his call was right, Columbus (1451-1506) would achieve acclaim and power. If proved wrong, he’d be the laughingstock of Europe.
For years, explorers had tried to sail to Asia by hugging the coasts of Africa and the Middle East.
Columbus proposed a perpendicular route across the open sea.
The idea met with stiff resistance. From 1485 to 1492 he lobbied the governments of Portugal, Spain, Venice and his native Genoa.
The reason he was rebuffed? His mileage estimates from western Europe to Asia fell short. Experts in Europe’s royal courts knew it.
Though many in Columbus’ time thought Earth was flat, the fact that it was round was well-known among the educated, as noted by historians such as David Boyle, author of Toward the Setting Sun.
Still, Columbus’ calculations of the planet’s circumference were off.
Scholars knew the western route to Asia was far longer than Columbus claimed, and there was no guarantee of finding a new world along the way. That kept most European powers from sailing west, fearing their sailors would die of hunger and thirst before reaching land.
During a final round of negotiations — spanning two years — Columbus learned that Spain was willing to take the risk. A key reason: It sought trade domination over rival nations.
If it could control the spice trade in newly discovered lands or the Indies — as they were known — Spain would reach its goal.
Columbus focused on that goal — and played to his strength as a navigator. What he lacked in mileage estimates, he made up for in a vital find: Trade winds could push ships west and east across the Atlantic.
Another key strength was his power of persuasion. “From Portugal to Spain, he learned not only the languages of the royal courts, but the dialects of the upper classes,” Michael Gelb, author of Discover Your Genius, told IBD. “It’s tough enough to learn new languages, but to speak them in the refined upper-class dialects — and do it in a convincing way — is especially hard. Cockney Englanders would have trouble speaking Oxford English in their native tongue. Columbus learned dialects along with languages. He also learned the manners and body language of a courtier. He completely related to his audience.”
He was a salesman extraordinaire, says Alan Axelrod, author of Profiles in Audacity. “He also had an insight into the psychology of powerful people,” Axelrod told IBD.
Like all good salesmen, said Gelb, Columbus “wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was almost irrationally optimistic about his prospects for success. That optimism kept the royal courts engaged.”
In 1492, Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella relented.
The deal Columbus struck with them made him admiral of the Ocean Sea, and governor and viceroy of all lands he discovered.
Columbus set sail with three ships and 120 sailors in August.
The journey was only half the challenge. The other half was the crew.
Like most sailors of that era, “they were poorly educated, and many were unsavory,” Gelb said. “Lacking education, many feared the Earth was flat and they’d fall off the edge if they traveled too far. Columbus had to manage them, keep them focused — and calm their fears. He was the ultimate example of coping with a difficult work force.”
In October, he landed in the Bahamas, then sailed to Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Ahead of such explorers as Ferdinand Magellan, Columbus found the mainland of Central and South America on later voyages.
He succeeded for several reasons:
• He never stopped learning. “Columbus was the son of a weaver and was not well educated as a young man,” Axelrod said. “Yet he became quite learned and was almost entirely self-taught. Most boys in his position would’ve followed their father’s trade. Columbus thought differently. He had a passion to make something of himself. He looked beyond his station in life.”
Through study and experience, he became “a brilliant navigator and entrepreneur,” Boyle said. “His big idea was to take the risk of sailing (west) and gather the rewards.”
• He built momentum. “It was through his communications and reports back to Europe that Spain and other nations caught the vision of the New World,” Axelrod said. “Though Leif Erickson and others discovered the New World hundreds of years before Columbus, nothing much came of it. Columbus’ vision and communication skills started a colonization process that lasted hundreds of years.
“He fired the imagination of the Old World. He described the Americas as a place of renewal — spiritually, economically, in every way. That view became a model that lasted through the Renaissance right up to the founding of the U.S., and helped fuel this country’s expansion west into the wilderness. The idea of discovery as an almost spiritual quest started with Columbus.”
• He inspired. By conveying his mission powerfully, he got “powerful people to back him, the lowliest of people to follow him — and he changed the world,” Axelrod said.
• He risked. Said Gelb: “He literally launched out into the unknown, and that offers lessons for everyone. To achieve your goals, are you willing to depart from the coastline of habit and comfort? Are you willing to leave the shoreline of convention and head for deep, unexplored waters? Columbus was — and so are leaders in every era and industry.”
Columbus discovered the New World by risking everything and sailing the Atlantic Ocean.
“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”