I’ve been reading two books this summer, one on Comanche Indians and the other on Pirates! Talk about fun summer reading-what’s more captivating in history than the true stories about the dashing pirate and the fierce Comanche warrior? Interestingly enough, both came to prominence around the same time – the 17th and 18th centuries. Both groups wielded enough power to shake the foundations of empires. What’s truly fascinating, though, is their strikingly similar organizational structures—structures that offer surprising lessons for modern business strategy.

Why Pirates and Comanches Have Similar Management Tactics

Both groups, pirates and Comanches, were built for plundering targets and then escaping into the vastness… the sea or the southwest plains. By necessity and pragmatism, both developed very meritocratic and egalitarian societies. This wasn’t due to some altruistic motivation.. It just happens to be the best culture to support their similar strategies.

For example, the leadership composition and compensation strategies for a pirate ship were incredibly flat. Pirate ships made decisions by consensus and every full-fledged member of the crew received no less than one full share of the booty. And no one received more than two shares, which was the highest paid role of war captain. Specialist roles like the carpenter, cook, and ship’s doctor, received slightly more than regular crew members of 1.25 to 1.5 shares total. That’s incredibly flat!

Why is this? Well, it ensures that when battle comes, all pirates are in it to win it. Afterall, if you were a regular pirate, why would you jump into the enemy ship and engage in close quarters combat if the captain was going to pull 10X or 100X of your share? You wouldn’t.

The same spirit held true for the Comanche. Not even the war chief could order a Comanche into battle or even dictate who and where to fight. Each Comanche had a tremendous amount of individual autonomy and decisions were usually reached by consensus.

But here’s what I found most interesting: despite very different operating environments, the high seas vs. the barren plains, and different technologies like the ship, blunderbuss, and cutlass vs. the horse, lance, and bows, both groups landed on a dual leadership model.

That’s right. At the heart of their success were two distinct types of leaders: the war chief and the peace chief.

War Chiefs and Peace Chiefs: Different Styles for Different Functions

On pirate ships, the war chief was the captain—a leader chosen for his combat prowess and strategic mind. His authority reigned supreme during battles, when quick, decisive action was crucial. The quartermaster, akin to a peace chief, managed the ship’s day-to-day operations. He ensured fair distribution of loot, settled disputes, and maintained order, wielding significant power off the battlefield.

The Comanche tribe operated similarly. The war chief recruited bands for large raids and defended the tribe, chosen for his bravery and tactical skill. Meanwhile, the peace chief oversaw domestic affairs, diplomacy, and resource management, ensuring the tribe’s cohesion and prosperity during times of peace.

These dual leadership roles created a balance, allowing both pirates and Comanches to adapt swiftly between the demands of war and peace, much like businesses must manage between innovation and operational efficiency.

Critically, separating these roles prevented too much consolidation of power under a war chief during times of peace, and also prevented the peace chief from slowing down the agility of the plunder machine, the lifeblood of the tribe or crew.

Lessons for Modern Business Strategy

So, what can today’s business leaders learn from these marauding bands? In my work, Organizational Physics, I emphasize that the structure of a company must align with its business strategy. Pirates and Comanches thrived because their structures supported their strategic objectives—survival and success in hostile environments.

Leadership for Balance: Just as pirates and Comanches had war and peace chiefs, businesses benefit from having leaders who excel in different realms. One might focus on innovation and driving new initiatives (akin to a war chief), while another ensures operational excellence and stability (akin to a peace chief). This balance allows companies to navigate both turbulent and calm waters effectively.

Shared Understanding and Shared Rewards: Pirates and Comanches understood the power of giving everyone a stake in the game and being transparent in decision-making. Modern companies can foster a similar sense of ownership and engagement by promoting transparency, encouraging participation, and valuing each team member’s contributions. This approach not only boosts morale but also drives collective success.

Adaptability and Agility: The success of these marauding groups lay in their ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. For businesses, this means building a flexible organizational structure that can pivot swiftly in response to market changes, technological advancements, or competitive pressures.

Merit-Based Leadership: Elevating leaders based on their skills, experience, and ability to inspire others—rather than their tenure or connections—ensures that the most capable individuals are guiding the team. This meritocratic approach fuels innovation and drives performance.

Avoiding the Imitation Trap

However, it’s crucial to note that while these historical examples provide valuable insights, blindly copying their structures without understanding your own business context can lead to failure. The success of pirates and Comanches came from their structures being perfectly tailored to their unique challenges and objectives.

In Organizational Physics, I stress that every company must design its structure to support its specific strategy. What works for a marauding band won’t work for a tech startup or a manufacturing firm. The key is to understand the principles and trade-offs behind these structures and adapt them to fit your unique environment.

In my work helping CEOs to design and implement new and scalable organizational structures, I would never recommend having two chiefs (two CEOs). Unless of course I found myself consulting for a pirate ship or war band. :-) I would absolutely teach that different functions of the business require different leadership styles and that you can make smart consolidation decisions in the structure by understanding the trade offs of different design choices. You can learn more about this smart approach to designing a modern business by reading my book Designed to Scale: How to Structure Your Company for Exponential Growth or by starting with these Designed to Scale videos.


The tales of pirates and Comanches are more than just thrilling stories of adventure and conquest. They are case studies in effective, adaptive leadership and organizational design. By embracing clear leadership roles, egalitarian principles, and a merit-based approach, modern businesses can foster engagement, drive innovation, and navigate the complexities of today’s market. Just remember: it’s not about copying the marauders but understanding the principles that made them successful and applying them wisely to your own strategy.

Arrrrrggghhhh! Now go conquer your market with the wisdom of history’s greatest marauders.

The Books

In case you were interested, the two books I mentioned are:

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American by S. C. Gwynne.

The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates by Peter T. Leeson.

Content Warning: There are some horrific scenes of violence described in both books. Before you decide to explore these worlds, keep that in mind.