Columbus Day Myth and Opportunity

Did you miss Leif Erickson Day on Saturday? Congress first proclaimed October 9 as Leif Erickson Day in 1964.  That’s a good call since the Norse explorer made his journey about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. In marketing parlance, Columbus is the sizzle to Erickson’s steak.

More importantly, as a small business owner you have an opportunity this Columbus Day. You can avoid ticking off 2.5 million Americans who self-identify as Native American or Alaskan.  Because in reading some great essays this weekend, many folks view this as an African-American might view Lee-Jackson Day in the south.   And you can avoid ticking off your fellow business leaders who don’t celebrate failed strategy. Most of us know Columbus didn’t meet his goals as a business leader. You don’t often see “Leadership Secrets of Christopher Columbus” for a good reason. Consider:

  • Columbus missed, and while failure is fine, not understanding you failed is bad.
  • Columbus overestimated his competitive advantage, holding out for up to 10% of proceeds for future trips.  He got some short-run cash, but no intellectual property protected his position. Revenue-sharing is great, but only if you’re providing value to your partner.
  • Columbus overestimated the value of his first mover advantage.   Within years, Cortes had sailed against the Mexica Empire to the north and Pizarro had attacked south in the Andes.
  • Columbus didn’t understand labor pools.  Triangle trade was not just a travesty of the belief system Columbus professed to have faith in, but expensive.  The population in Hispaniola fell from 1 million to 30,000 within a generation of Columbus’ landing.  I don’t expect a 15th century European not named da Vinci to understand the mechanisms of the native people dying from disease.  But Columbus dismissed the notion that European presence caused sickness. He ignored the data right in front of him.
  • Columbus cared more about the trappings of office than success.  Call this the Dennis Koslowski Effect.  Remember the Tyco exec with the lavish lifestyle and unauthorized bonuses?   Columbus did much the same, pushing for titles and his own Coat of Arms.   After receiving the latter, he had the insignia redone to include royal colors and unauthorized symbols.   Wealth allows people to buy nice things.  Chris didn’t understand that titles and trappings are transient.  What a horrible negotiator!

We can have fun with Columbus and the federal holiday (created in 1934, 30 years before Leif got his proclamation), but your takeaway as a small business leader is to understand more about diversity than is typically taught in a half day HR seminar. Columbus’  journey destroyed rich civilizations on two continents and led to destruction of a civilization on a third.

The Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey (and please fire any marketer who doesn’t have a shortcut to at least 2 census.gov pages) show that 2.4 million Americans identify themselves as belonging to one of those cultures.  Tens of millions more have an affinity for the Mexica/Aztec and South American cultures destroyed by Columbus’ competitors. Your business shouldn’t celebrate failure and you also should be sure that you are sensitive to millions of your customers, prospects and partners.  Christopher Columbus wasn’t a good leader, but the only thing I know as a small business leader is that my bank is closed and I won’t get any postal mail today.  I sure won’t celebrate the day, however, even in jest.  Take a look at this map for where those millions of people live to understand why. US map showing Native American populations

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