The Gloriously Flawed Leader

One in a series of posts about leadership lessons derived from the classic novel Moby-Dick

In the business world, we love our legendary leaders. They are swash-buckling heroes who take over floundering corporate ships and set them to rights. Every decision they make sparkles like polished brass. Every course they set is true. Every speech they make rings as brightly as a gold doubloon.

It’s all a bunch of crap, of course. In most cases, even leaders of successful enterprises have done lots of dumb things, from betting on the wrong business models to alienating key employees to engaging in quasi-unethical exploits. But as long as their companies have enjoyed lots of growth during their tenure, most of this gets swept under the proverbial rug, except by the very best business biographers.

Melville is more honest about leaders than most of the existing biz lit. The leaders on the Pequod have some lousy qualities along with their good ones. Let’s take the second mate Stubb, for example. He has his fair share of flaws as a leader, but sometimes he makes us proud.

One of those moments occurs in the chapter “The Monkey Rope,” which starts with Ishmael’s noble cannibal buddy Queequeg doing the kind of job that would give your average OSHA official conniptions. Even as crew members with sharp blades strip the whale of its blubber, Queegueg — who is responsible for fixing the whale to the ship with a hook — tries to stand atop the gigantic carcass “half on the whale and half in the water, as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath him.”

There are lots of options for getting killed or maimed in this job. You can can be sliced with a blade, or smashed between the ship and the whale, or drowned underneath, or even chomped by sharks in a whale-devouring feeding frenzy:

Right in among those sharks was Queequeg; who often pushed them aside with his floundering feet. A thing altogether incredible were it not that attracted by such prey as a dead whale, the otherwise miscellaneously carnivorous shark will seldom touch a man.

It is, in short, a good day’s work, the kind of enterprise that makes your average death-defying harpooner a tad parched. But when the exhausted Queequeg “with blue lips and blood-shot eyes” at last climbs back on board the ship, the ship’s steward hands him a lukewarm cup of ginger and water.

This action sets Stubb off on one of the best libation-based rants in literary history. The following quote is just a portion of his diatribe:

“Ginger? Do I smell ginger?” suspiciously asked Stubb, coming near. “Yes, this must be ginger,” peering into the as yet untasted cup. Then standing as if incredulous for a while, he calmly walked towards the astonished steward slowly saying, “Ginger? ginger? and will you have the goodness to tell me, Mr. Dough-Boy, where lies the virtue of ginger? Ginger! is ginger the sort of fuel you use, Dough-boy, to kindle a fire in this shivering cannibal? Ginger!-what the devil is ginger?-sea-coal? firewood?-lucifer matches?-tinder?-gunpowder?-what the devil is ginger, I say, that you offer this cup to our poor Queequeg here.”

The beleaguered steward claims it was not his idea but that of Aunt Charity, the well-meaning sister of one of the owners of the Pequod. She had given him the ginger and “bade me never give the harpooneers any spirits, but only this ginger-jub-so she called it.”

The Pequod’s harpooners are, of course, all mighty men of the “heathen” (meaning non-Christian) and “savage” (meaning non-White) persuasion. However weirdly racist it may be, Aunt Charity no doubt thought she was doing her Christian duty in protecting the harpooners from the evils of drink. Stubb, to his credit as a leader, would have none of it.

Image by BrokenSphere. A US Navy grog measure cup, ca. 1850 on display at the Marines’ Memorial Hotel in San Francisco, California.

In a comradely show of respect for employee diversity (not to mention dauntlessness), Stubb went down and got a dark flask filled with “strong spirits” and handed it over to Queequeg as a reward for his dangerous work. He also got Aunt Charity’s tea-caddy of ginger and tossed the damned stuff overboard.

Okay, maybe the fact that Stubb bellowed at, bullied and whacked at the order-following steward would disqualify him as Leader of the Year…. even in the 1800s.  And, I suppose that encouraging your employees to drink on the job is not exactly in the HR 101 handbook. Yet, with all his imperfections, Stubb displays a very leader-like quality in standing up for the rights of his talented harpooners to be rewarded after facing down the sharks at work. It should indeed be a right for us all.

Melvillian Leadership Lesson for the Day: By all means, stick up for the rights of your crew when you see them being infringed on, especially when their rights are linked to something as vile as racism. But avoid the kind of blustering and bullying that diminishes your good intentions.

Featured image: Whale Fishing Fac Simile of a wood cut in the cosmographie universelle thevit in polio paris 1574

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Mark R. Vickers

I am a writer, analyst, futurist and researcher. I've spent most of my working life as an editor and manager for research organizations focusing on social, business, technology, HR and management trends. But, perhaps more to the point for this blog, I'm curious about the universe and the myriad, often mysterious relationships therein.

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