We can learn a variety of leadership lessons from Queequeg in Moby-Dick
Although Captain Ahab was named for a wicked king, there is only one leader of actual royal blood in the Melville’s great novel: the cannibal Queequeg.
Queequeg, we learn in Chapter 12, wanted to be a great leader to the people of the island-nation Rokovoko, where his father was High Chief. To accomplish that, he strove to learn more about Christendom, having been exposed to a whaling ship that had taken harbor on Rokovoko. After all, the people aboard that great whaling ship seemed to have powerful ways and technologies. Prince Queequeg wanted to draw lessons from these foreigners, educating himself in “the arts whereby to make his people still happier than they were; and more than that, still better than they were.”
But the captain of the whaling refused to take Queequeg aboard, stymieing the ambitious prince. So, like any good leader, he demonstrated boldness and ingenuity in the face of obstacles.
Alone in his canoe, he paddled off to a distant strait, which he knew the ship must pass through when she quitted the island. … Hiding his canoe, still afloat, among these thickets, with its prow seaward, he sat down in the stern, paddle low in hand; and when the ship was gliding by, like a flash he darted out; gained her side; with one backward dash of his foot capsized and sank his canoe; climbed up the chains; and throwing himself at full length upon the deck, grappled a ring-bolt there, and swore not to let it go, though hacked in pieces.
After much ado, stubborn Queequeg was made a member of the crew, where he did indeed learn the ways of the Christians. “But, alas!,” writes Melville, “the practices of whalemen soon convinced him that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than all his father’s heathens.” Things were no better when he got to places such as Sag Harbor and Nantucket, so Queequeg gave up his quest for wisdom among these strange peoples: “Thought he, it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan.”
Poor Queequeg’s sojourn is sad but not so uncommon among leaders. They frequently go to great lengths to gain valuable insights from outside their enterprises. They devour business books on airplanes, seek out the “best practices” of their competitors, and hire many a well-groomed and pricey consultant. Sometimes it pays off.
But sometimes it’s a bloody waste of time. The grass isn’t always greener just beyond. A company can twist itself into a pretzel trying to imitate a best practice from another company, only to later find that the company in question abandoned that stupid practice a year or two ago. Or employees can run screaming from the conference room after a CEO announces a major new initiative based on some best-selling business book written by yet another fashionable weirdo — maybe a dog-training Buddhist priest raising lamas in the Andes.
Melvillian Management Lesson: So, what is the leadership lesson to be learned here? First, it’s okay be bold in the quest for knowledge. Queequeg’s ambitions and instincts are wonderful and courageous. But the leader must also avoid being a sucker over the long haul. When Queequeg found out that the foreigners, despite their huge and impressive whaling canoes, knew even less about the art of happiness than his own peoples, “poor Queequeg gave it up for lost.”
In fact, he realized he needed to “unlearn” some of the weirdness in which he’d been indoctrinated. Only then could the chastened prince return home and take his rightful place as a wise leader. May we all have his wisdom to know when to be bold in our learning, when to ignore the BS, and when to actively try to unlearn stuff that is holding us back.
Featured image: Image from the 1930 edition of Moby-Dick, illustrated by Kent Rockwell