Are We All Crew on the Pequod Now?

We are all in the same boat, as the saying goes. But what scares me is that maybe that boat is ultimately as doomed as the Pequod in Moby-Dick.

On the Pequod and Spaceship Earth

I went to Disney World a couple of weeks ago. Although I didn’t go into the Spaceship Earth ride in the Epcot part of the park, I got a good look at it from a helium balloon in the Disney shopping district. A little while later, a Facebook friend posted the famous Earthrise photo.

The point is I’ve been thinking about the Earth as an astonishing and gorgeous spaceship that is, as far as we know, utterly unique in the cosmos. Is this spaceship a metaphor or fact? Well, the planet is moving around the sun at nearly 30 kilometers per second, which amounts to 67,000 miles per hour. But that’s not the only movement. Our whole solar system, gravitationally tied to the sun, is zipping around our galaxy at about 490,000 miles per hour.

So, yes, we are literally on a kind of spaceship.

At the same time, of course, I’m been writing about leadership lessons in the great novel Moby-Dick. I’ve been pondering whether or not there was any avoiding the tragedy of Ahab (spoiler alert) destroying the Pequod and killing every member of the crew (aside from our narrator Ishmael, of course).

On the Dark Obsessions of Ahab and Putin

Ahab spends a lot of time by himself obsessing. In fact, when we first hear of him, Captain Peleg tells Ishmael, “I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; but he keeps close inside the house; a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so. In fact, he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either. Any how, young man, he won’t always see me, so I don’t suppose he will thee.”

As of Chapter 21, we still haven’t gotten a look at Ahab, the only word being that “Captain Ahab remained invisibly enshrined within his cabin.”  In Chapter 23, we are told, “Captain Ahab stayed below.”

This reminds us of current events. The stories about Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, are eerily similar these days. We hear that “Putin himself was isolated, from other foreign leaders and from his own advisers and allies” in recent times.

Some of this isolation has been inspired by the pandemic, but it seems to have gone beyond that: “Questions have been raised over whether Covid-19 has fueled Vladimir Putin’s paranoia after claims emerged the isolated president spent time ‘stewing in his own fears’ after ‘withdrawing into himself’ during the pandemic.”

Some speculate that Putin’s psyche, already demented by his years in the KGB, has been further warped by his isolation in a bunker, where he has had a great deal of time to obsess about “the West,” perhaps in the same way Ahab obsesses about the great whale that has harmed him so.

On the Failure to Stop a Megalomaniac

In Moby-Dick, there are multiple failures to stop the tragedy. As we’ve noted, Peleg allowed Ahab to take the Pequod to sea even though he should have known better. Later on, Starbuck comes to understand how dangerous Ahab is, but he can’t bring himself to mutiny against his captain, and it’s not clear that he’d have the crew’s support if he did.

That leaves the crew itself. The crew members could have put an end to Ahab’s mad quest but they didn’t feel as if they had the power. That’s what a dictator does. He (and it is usually a he, with a few exceptions) makes others believe that he rather than they have the power, even if it’s based on an illusion. Dictators know how to divide and conquer and cast an aura of invincibility even though their deepest fear is that they will be exposed as the frail, vulnerable and all-too-fallible individuals that they are.

As I write this, there is no knowing how the current invasion of Ukraine will end. What we do know is that Putin himself has raised the specter of nuclear war. Of course, aside from not being a fictional character, Putin is no Ahab. He is being resisted on many fronts. Yet, sitting on the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, Putin has the potential to do untold damage to all the inhabitants of the ship called Earth. It’s as if we are all now crew members aboard the Pequod.

I don’t know if Putin is as obsessed and insane as Ahab. Maybe he’s a cold-blooded strategist rather than an emotional cripple, or maybe he’s somewhere in between.

Nor do I know if there’s any stopping him. Is there a Starbuck who could act against him in Russia? Could the Russian nation itself rise against him?

From what I’ve read, these are both long shots. There’s no telling how this will end.

What I do know is that it’s scary, at least from my perspective, that the fate of the planet rests largely on the shoulders of, again from my perspective, one very bad and possibly mad leader.

If we have the chance, we crew of the Spaceship Earth should do our level best to rid ourselves of the kinds of weaponry that makes it possible for one Ahab-like leader to so easily scuttle the vessel on which we ride though the star-studded seas. I’m afraid, though, that most of us can no longer even imagine the possibility of disarming our tripwire weapons of mass destruction. If so, then perhaps we have no more autonomy than the ill-fated crew of Melville’s tragic tale.

The Underhanded Leader

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

To get what he wanted, Captain Ahab knew how to manipulate his employers. It’s one of the oldest ploys in the leadership book: act in a stealthy manner to keep the execs off your back so you can more freely reign over your own crew (who, no doubt, are picking up their own cues from you). The underhanded leader is all too common in fiction…and in life.

In Chapter 50, “Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah,” Melville tells us about how Ahab had been stowing away a private crew of whale killers, tough-guy mercenaries who could man his own personal whale boat so he could stick the barb to Moby-Dick. This bout of hands-on micromanagement from a one-legged man was simply not foreseen by his employers. Melville tells it thus:

[I]s it wise for any maimed man to enter a whale-boat in the hunt? As a general thing, the joint-owners of the Pequod must have plainly thought not. Ahab well knew that although his friends at home would think little of his entering a boat in certain comparatively harmless vicissitudes of the chase, for the sake of being near the scene of action and giving his orders in person, yet for Captain Ahab to have a boat actually apportioned to him as a regular headsman in the hunt — above all for Ahab to be supplied with five extra men, as that same boat’s crew, he well knew that such generous conceits never entered the heads of the owners of the Pequod. Therefore he had not solicited a boat’s crew from them, nor had he in any way hinted his desires on that head. Nevertheless he had taken private measures of his own touching all that matter.

Once safely out of the owners’ scrutiny and reach, Ahab was going  rogue, hijacking their business plans for his own private purposes.

Underhanded? Sure. Mad? No doubt.

But also nicely contrived, Captain! Good job with the prior planning, the holding of cards close to your vest, the crafty coordination of personnel.

Such are the games that leaders may play. It’s often for their own selfish ends, as they use company funds to pad their own accounts, or fly their lovers around, or take their rich and influential friends on all-expenses-paid vacations. But sometimes leaders playing such dangerous games have less selfish goals.

Maybe they’re intent on trying out some radical idea that they know their own bosses would nix but which they believe will serve the company in the long haul. Maybe they want to sell to a neglected market. Or pour R&D funds into a risky innovation. Or try out a new management technique that goes against the grain of the corporate culture.

It’s always a risk. Such leaders could well be hung out to dry if and when they’re found out. But maybe, if their secret gambit pays off, they’ll eventually be honored as a “risk taker,” a “maverick,” a cocky type whistling Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” all the way to the bank.

Melvillian Leadership Lesson: Such underhandedness is usually a rotten idea. If a leader believes so much in a certain idea, then she or he shouldn’t go behind the boss’s back to pursue it. Instead, if they can’t convince their supervisors that something is a worth a risk, they should take off and do it on their own. That’s what entrepreneurship is for.

In the Cap’s case, of course, his deceit was sheer expediency. He didn’t give a rat’s buttocks about being fair to his employers. Nor did he care about deceiving his own crew. He decided to use the tried-and-not-so-true method of mushroom management: keeping his workers in the dark and feeding them… well, you know. In his own eyes, though, the means would justify the ends. This too is a leadership lesson. When leaders start thinking, “Yes, this is a lousy thing to do, but I’ve got to do it to get to my goal,” they should think twice, maybe even thrice.

Featured image from I. W. Taber - Moby Dick - edition: Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, Wikipedia

Poor Peleg’s Leadership Blunder

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

I know…that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody—desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off. And once for all, let me tell thee and assure thee, young man, it’s better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one.

–Captain Peleg’s thoughts on Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick

Poor Peleg. He’s the perfect prototype of the angel investor – one of the owners of the ill-fated ship Pequod – who literally sinks his money in a catastrophic investment: that is, crazed Captain Ahab’s venture. What I love most about this particular passage is that Peleg is simultaneously both right and infamously wrong. It is a leadership blunder that rings of wisdom.

The “moody good captain” line is golden – in theory. Sure, it’s great to have a leader who knows how to tell and take a joke, especially if the jokes aren’t the snarky, sarcastic types that can waft through a corporate culture like toxic gas. But a leader had better be able to do more than hit a punchline. A captain who regularly sends the ship into the shoals ain’t much of a captain, no matter how lilting his laughter.

On the other hand, a crew can take some moodiness – maybe some surliness – from a captain who really knows her trade and keeps things ship shape, even in the big waves.

But, though right in theory, Peleg was way off in fact. Ahab’s desperate moodiness will not “pass off.” Not by a long shot.

Melvillian Management Lesson: “Thou shalt not delegate a critical enterprise to someone, even to someone you’ve trusted in the past, who has been through a major ordeal if you’re still not sure how they’re going to come out the other end.” Peleg should have waited before sending Ahab out again, especially since there would be no overseeing the voyage of the Pequod once it cast off.

As an investor, Peleg paid for his leadership blunder, but he didn’t pay nearly as dearly as Ahab’s crew. That’s always the problem with leadership sins: they cascade downward and outward, rippling through oceans.

Featured image from Petesimon, 10 March 2009, Wikimedia Commons.

The Leader Makeover

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

John Barrymore’s Ahab, from Observationnotes

This is a departure from the other Ahab posts on this blog in that it’s not about a specific chapter in the book. Instead, this is a quick bit of balladry, inspired by the avid polishing work carried out by the plethora of hard-working public relations pros on behalf of their companies and leaders. Here’s a short poem on how a hired hand might provide a restoration of the reputation of Ahab, a leader makeover, if you will:

The Makeover

When my boss told me about our new client,
I thanked her, quietly excused myself,
strolled onto a nearby smoking terrace,
then squealed alone with urgent delight.

Ahab! Ahab! Ahab! I chanted to myself.
“Makeover of the Millennium” they’d print in a bold,
45-point font above the fold, a striking sanserif
across my nose, PRWeek posted on my brow.

“Start by tarring Ishmael,” the boss had urged.
“Some depressed sailor-schoolmaster harboring
violent, hat-knocking, anti-social obsessions;
his word shouldn’t mean squat in this town.”

Yes, and then I’ll need a social media angle,
maybe start with anonymous Wikipedia retouches:
“Tyrannical captain” to “committed leader”;
“monomaniacal desire” to “impassioned focus.”

Stress his courage overcoming a disability,
his refusal to take a penny of workers’ comp,
a sacrificing, Quaker-modest company man walking
the peg-legged talk, a Steve-Jobs perfectionist.

And ultra-master motivator to boot! Yeah, with
mast-hammering, doubloon-flashing showmanship,
a productivity-enhancing, pay-for-performance pro,
the original Jack Welch with more crust and courage.

His only flaw an aversion of evil. Even Ishmael’s
words, untwisted, tell that tale, with grisly Moby not
just killer but incarnation of “malicious agencies,”
the Ahab Christian pit against the Devil itself.

O Captain! My Captain! The Whitman poem truly
honors you, great Ahab, not poor old Abraham.
Both being lanky, bearded greats on much-weathered ships,
vessels grim and daring – an easy mistake to make.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Right up until the day he got them all killed, a lot of crewmembers aboard the Pequod were drinking Ahab’s Kool-Aid. Even truly terrible leaders, if they can carve out their own brand of rhetoric and charisma, can attract avid followers. Donald Trump once boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

Well, no. It’s all too credible. People develop strong loyalties to truly terrible leaders all the time. It’s a story as old as humanity itself. And today, if you add in a little professional public relations with a large dash of media canniness, you can convince followers that the phoniest fabricators in the world are “plainspoken” or that the most selfish and cruel leaders are somehow self-sacrificing and caring.

So, we shouldn’t judge leaders (nor should they judge themselves) by their ability to attract and motivate followers. That is neither the purpose nor the mark of good leadership, as Moby-Dick clearly shows. The purpose and mark of a good leader is the ability to move people in a positive direction that does good in the world. That sounds sappy, and “good in the world” is all-too-open to interpretation. But if you want to go further, you’ll have to grab your sextant and dig out the star charts of Plato, Aquinas, Kant and the like. Even the great Melville can take us only so far into those deep waters.

For the Love of Oddball Leaders

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

I have a love/hate relationship with leadership competencies. On one hand, I see the benefit of telling a young manager, “Hey, here are the competencies we associate with good leadership. Learn them and you’ll go far.” On the other hand, there’s much to be said for oddball leaders. I hate the notion of the kind of cookie-cutter leadership in which managers see and react to problems in the same ways every time. It reminds me of the classic song “Little Boxes”:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

There were still plenty of leaders before the advent of leadership competencies, but there was less ticky-tacky sameness in the ways we thought about them. In Moby-Dick, Melville gives us an assortment of memorably idiosyncratic leaders, each of them bringing distinctive strengths and peculiar weaknesses to the management of the Pequod.

The Three Knights

The best overview of this cast of leaders occurs in Chapters 26 and 27, both titled “Knights and Squires.” The “knights” are the three “momentous men” who serve as officers aboard the Pequod. Because they each head up their own whale boat, Ishmael says they are “as captains of companies.” They may be momentous and knightly captains, but they are also very different.

First, there is Starbuck (for whom the coffee-house empire is named). If any leader is most traditional by modern standards, it is Starbuck, chief mate of the Pequod : “Looking into his eyes, you seemed to see there the yet lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life. A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds.”

Then, there is the second mate Stubb:  “A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests.” Today, Stubb would often be viewed as a cynical smart-ass type who gets his job done, even if in unsettlingly unorthodox ways.

Next is Flask, the third mate: “A short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales…So utterly lost was he to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to kill and boil.”

The Professional, Punchinello and Pragmatist

These three, with Ahab, represent the official leadership hierarchy of the Pequod but are, despite their common vocations, so different as to be types unto themselves. There is Starbuck the Professional, Stubb the Punchinello and Flask the Pragmatist.

They all have something to teach us about leadership, as we’ll detail in future posts. For now, however, we can imagine the types of leadership advice they’d get today from well-meaning mentors.  Starbuck would be the fair-haired boy, the one who aces all the leadership assessments, is inked into the succession plan, and is widely touted as a “high potential.” At least in some organizations, his one Achilles’ Heal might be an ethical center and religious faith that sometimes hampers him in the vicious bare-fanged, chimp-like infighting not unknown in the rarefied airs of corporate hierarchies.

Stubb, on the other hand, would likely be stuck in middle management, his superiors secretly harboring their resentments against his satirical quips and not-so-secretly labeling him as “unserious.” However he well scored on the LPI, or DISC, or Hogan, or Hays EI, or Myers-Briggs, Stubbs wouldn’t be considered exec material unless he learned to rein himself in and properly channel his impolitic thoughts and comments. (Yes, I feel his pain.)

Flask, I’m afraid, would hardly have a shot at the top spots. He is the quintessential manager with barely a lick of originality. Flask is a taker of orders and therefore a fine arrow for any exec to have in his quiver, being practical, literal and unsentimental. But the top spots in the executive chain go to those with some (if not too much) imagination. The only way Flask could make up for this is with great gobs of ambition, a willingness to surround himself with imaginative underlings whose ideas he could harness (or steal), and an undaunted willingness to mention “thinking outside the box” in every conversation he has with his superiors.

These same types — and many others — are still with us, of course. The only real difference is that we have our ticky-tacky assessments and subsequent trainings (aka, leadership development initiatives) to knock more of the rough edges off these jaggedly fascinating characters, giving them greater opportunities to fit into smooth, rounded holes like so many scrubbed golf balls rolling expectantly on immaculate, verdant greens.

Melvillian Management Lesson: By all means, develop your leaders. Use the leadership inventories and other tools at your disposal to help employees become more astute about good management practices. But don’t over-rely on such assessments, and don’t expect all your leaders to act in identical ways to the same situations. Give the Stubbs and Flasks opportunities and see if they rise to them. You don’t want an oddball bunch of unprofessional neurotics, but you also don’t want group-thinking automatons who look askance at those who seem a little different. Diversity — and not just gender and ethnic diversity — is quite alright. You want leaders who bring their own unique strengths and, yes, sometimes even idiosyncrasies to the organization. Life is too short to be constantly wedged into little ticky-tacky boxes that all look just the same.

Feature image: Aerial view of tract housing in Daly City, California, a suburb of San Francisco, which inspired Reynolds to write the song "Little Boxes"

The Mysterious Leader

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

For better and worse, a lot of high-level leaders carry with them an air of mystery. This has its advantages, with the mysterious leader often seeming to be beyond ordinary human fallibilities.

Seldom has any leader in literature been more mysterious than Captain Ahab. For many long pages in Moby-Dick, Ahab is only an elusive character of legend. We hear opinions about him, and even have our spines tingled by the shrouded prophecies of Elijah. But, despite the fact that he is a main character –- no, he is the main character — we do not see him in the flesh until Chapter 28.

Is this just suspense-building on the part of Melville? Pshaw. This is the author who spends chapter after chapter on the arcana of the whaling industry. Melville can create suspense, but he cares little about its conventions, being more artist than craftsman. No, he is doing more than whetting our appetites; he is explaining, among other things, the nature of certain kinds of leaders.

I say “certain kinds” because mystery does not typically surround level-one supervisors or even most middle managers.  Like them or hate them, we at least think we know them and their foibles. There’s something about the person at the top that’s different. 

Maybe it’s that they are less accessible, as Ahab is throughout so much of the novel. Maybe it’s that they have all the power, or seem to. Maybe it’s because they do not want to be known. Being known means forging human bonds, and those bonds may make the leader weak in the face of hard decisions such as terminations, layoffs, discipline and the like. Or maybe it’s because everyone is projecting onto them so many abstracted emotions: hope, fear, envy, anger, and the rest. The top leader becomes less a person than an eidolon.

Even before he meets Ahab, Ishmael feels the mystery of him:

I … felt a strange awe of him; but that sort of awe, which I cannot at all describe, was not exactly awe; I do not know what it was. But I felt it; and it did not disincline me towards him; though I felt impatience at what seemed like mystery in him, so imperfectly as he was known to me then.

And, later, Ahab seems more a force a nature than person prone to weaknesses and self-doubt. This is by design. Although he is fearful and uncertain when encountering the white whale he seeks, Ahab is heard to mutter, “How valiantly I seek to drive out of others’ hearts what’s clinched so fast in mine!” This is part of a leader does at crucial times: project the emotions that will benefit the group rather than the emotions that may be secretly plaguing him or her.

It’s no wonder, then, that top leaders so often seem enigmatic. They are actors playing to crowds, stirring emotions, sending messages in bold letters. It is brutally difficult to be genuine and approachable under these circumstances.

As for Ahab, he doesn’t even try to be approachable or, indeed, anything less than awe-inspiring. Awe is what drives his crew. If he must become an icon to achieve his goals, so be it.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Every top leader must carry the mantle of mystery differently, but all should be aware that it exists. Sometimes it’s a tool that can be used, for good or ill, as Ahab uses it. But mystery often alienates as well, making it harder to relate to or trust the leader. When that’s the case, the leader should probably go out of his or her way to become more approachable. More active listening and “managing by walking around” are some of the more common prescriptions.

The last thing that any leader wants is to continuously expand the bubble that surrounds him or her. They can become alienated in their solitude, and this can send them in dangerous, ill-advised directions as they become disconnected from others and, indeed, reality itself.

As I write this, I can’t help but think of the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who has become notorious for sitting at the end of a very long table in his meetings (in part due to Covid-19 fears). One has to wonder whether the air of mystery and isolation he has long cultivated has helped shape him into an Ahab-like character. That might go a long way in explaining the senseless tragedy of the Ukraine invasion.

Featured image from Grahn; Japanese Noh theatre mask from the 17th century

The Angry, Arrogant Leader

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

Shortly after Captain Ahab makes his first appearance in Moby-Dick, we get an insight into one facet of his leadership style: that of the arrogant leader. It’s night time, most of the crew is trying to sleep, and restless Ahab is above pacing the decks with his ivory leg. Ahab is in a mood:

He usually abstained from patrolling the quarter-deck; because to his wearied mates, seeking repose within six inches of his ivory heel, such would have been the reverberating crack and din of that bony step, that their dreams would have been on the crunching teeth of sharks. But once, the mood was on him too deep for common regardings; and as with heavy, lumber-like pace he was measuring the ship from taffrail to mainmast.

At this point in the story, Ahab is still a mystery to his crew, including Stubb, the wise-cracking second mate. So, when Stubb ascends to the deck to speak to the captain about the noise, he approaches him in a very Stubb-like way. Using an “unassured, deprecating humorousness,” he hinted to Ahab that “there might be some way of muffling the noise; hinting something indistinctly and hesitatingly about a globe of tow, and the insertion into it, of the ivory heel.”

By the way, the “globe of tow” refers to a batch of flax before it is spun into rope or fabric. In essence, Stubb is trying to ask his new captain to stop his pacing, which is keeping the crew awake below decks. The stuff about the adding some flax to his ivory leg in order to quell the noise is his way of making light of his request. Ahab, however, doesn’t see the humor:

“Am I a cannon-ball, Stubb,” said Ahab, “that thou wouldst wad me that fashion? But go thy ways; I had forgot. Below to thy nightly grave; where such as ye sleep between shrouds, to use ye to the filling one at last.—Down, dog, and kennel!”

Leaders can be tricky customers with which to deal, and the brilliant, crazed Ahab is trickier than most. First, he turns Stubb’s joke on its head, with the allusion to the cannon-ball wadding. Ahab is, after all, a cannon ball of a man with a will of iron and a deadly, combustible nature. “Don’t dare try to quell my thunder,” he is saying to Stubb.

But the next sentence is a crucial one. He simply says, “I had forgot.”

With this, he is admitting his fault, however briefly. In his restless thoughts about how to track down the white whale, Ahab has simply lost track of what time of night it is. We hardly hear his mea culpa because he directly follows it with a couple of whopper insults. First, he compares Stubb to dead man (or a soon-to-be corpse), telling him to go down to his grave and sleep between the shrouds. Then he follows up with the “down, dog” aspersion. Stubb doesn’t take kindly to the insult and speaks up for himself: “I will not tamely be called a dog, sir.”

Ahab only doubles down on the insults: “Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!” Stubb  is no coward, but he retreats before the gale of the infuriated Ahab, barely believing in what has occurred.

So, what lessons can we draw this from scene? First, of course, there’s the standard, “Leaders who are corrupted by their own power can be toxic bullies.” But that’s too pat. Yes, angry and arrogant leaders exist. I think most of us have, at some point, worked for ill-tempered bosses, the kind of people you don’t speak to unless they are in a good mood.

But employees often adjust to these slightly unhinged leaders, figuring out how to negotiate the landmines of their psyches. Stubb still needs to learn how and when to deal with Ahab, and it’s now clear that smart-aleck remarks will not go over well.

It’s more interesting to try to get inside the head of Ahab here. Thinking of him as insane or monomaniacal is also far too easy, an analysis worthy only of lazy high school students.  Ahab is a complicated guy. From his point of view, Stubb is being insubordinate with his mild jape. What’s more, he’s doing it at a time when Ahab clearly has a lot on his mind. At moments like these, leaders are more self-centered than usual. They are often under serious stress and, rightly or not, expect others to accommodate that fact.

A preoccupied, sleep-deprived, maimed and manic Ahab responds in an almost instinctively Alpha-male way to a perceived challenge to his authority. He knows Stubb has a legitimate grievance and expects his tiny mea culpa (which no doubt feels like a large one to him) to suffice. Then, engrossed as he is with morbid matters of mortality, he allows himself to insult Stubb along those lines. He has recently been “entombed” below decks, so part of his insult is directed at himself.

Ahab is crazed, alright, and shows horrendous leadership throughout the scene. Nonetheless, the Stubb/Ahab interplay is an exaggerated version of leader/subordinate conflicts that occur every day in corporate life. They are most likely to happen with leaders who, like Ahab, lack the self-awareness and confidence to keep cool even in the face of perceived challenges or criticisms. These days, some research is discovering (or maybe rediscovering) the value of self-awareness to successful leaders. But even as the data on that comes in, it’s nice to know that we can derive the same insight from one of the world’s literary masterpieces.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Empathy tends to be a key attribute of a good leader. In this scene, Ahab utterly lacks it. He is self-absorbed and unaware of how he’s affecting others. This makes him act in disproportionate ways to the most meager of challenges to his authority. As a leader, if you find yourself frequently snapping at others or belittling them, then it’s time to pull back and try to look at the bigger picture. How would you perceive yourself if you were looking at things objectively? Are you being fair? Do you bear, even in small ways, some semblance to Captain Ahab?

Featured image: A Post Medieval cast iron cannon ball, photographed by Jen Jackson, Kent County Council,  2008-12-11

Breaking Bread with the Leader

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

Most of us have the opportunity of breaking bread with the leader at some point. It’s tricky unless you have absolute trust in the boss.  You need to parse your words carefully without seeming to, even while trying hard to use the correct fork without spilling hard-to-pronounce soups on your silk tie (yeah, I have experience in this area).

It’s an old story and ripe for satire. In Chapter 34 of Moby-Dick, we see the situation amped up to an absurd degree:

Like the Coronation banquet at Frankfort, where the German Emperor profoundly dines with the seven Imperial Electors, so these cabin meals were somehow solemn meals, eaten in awful silence; and yet at table old Ahab forbade not conversation; only he himself was dumb. What a relief it was to choking Stubb, when a rat made a sudden racket in the hold below. And poor little Flask, he was the youngest son….For Flask to have presumed to help himself, this must have seemed to him tantamount to larceny in the first degree. Had he helped himself at that table, doubtless, never more would he have been able to hold his head up in this honest world; nevertheless, strange to say, Ahab never forbade him.

Okay, there’s a naval overlay to this that makes it unique, but it nonetheless represents another entertaining parody of leadership rituals. And it is set against the more democratic meals of the harpooners:

In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers. While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report to it. They dined like lords; they filled their bellies like Indian ships all day loading with spices.

This difference isn’t just about ethnicity or job titles; it’s about a lack of hierarchy. Corporate hierarchies have their uses. They lend structure and enhance clarity. They make it relatively easy to make decisions, since stalemates are (in theory) shuffled up the next level in the hierarchy where a yea or nay decision can be made. And they may even give us a sense of security in knowing who is really in control.

But dinner-time dysfunctions are a reflection of what is worst about hierarchies. The pecking order constrains and, by its very nature, changes the way people interact with one another. It stymies innovation. After all, how many stories do you hear about a group of people sitting around a meal with a leader and coming up with some really neat new business idea? No, these stories nearly always start with a group of friends and equals sitting around a table — one typically laden with beers — and dreaming up some world-changing idea bound to become entrepreneurial lore.

Melvillian Management Lesson: The dinner table is a litmus test for leaders. Are the diners who are subordinates relaxed around you? Do they dare speak their minds? And, if they do, is there an ominous intake of breath among the other diners? Perhaps most importantly, will things come back to haunt someone who says something impolitic?

The more a leader can create a free-flowing (though not anarchic) atmosphere in which everyone can speak their mind (without getting personal), the better the leader will tend to be. And the less that a leader retaliates against people who are expressing unpopular but potentially legitimate opinions, the more likely they will be seen as having integrity and being worthy of trust.

Featured image: Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, 14th century. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

The Torn Loyalties of the Second-in-Command

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

I think the hardest job in management is being the second-in-command. The top leader suffers great scrutiny, but they also have much autonomy. The second-in-command, however, takes orders from the boss and must implement and defend his or her strategies even if they seem unworkable.

And then there’s the matter of torn loyalties if the top leader is engaging in questionable behaviors. Nowhere in literature is this more highly dramatized than in Moby-Dick. Amid Captain Ahab’s magnificently charismatic performance on the deck of the Pequod, there remains one cool and skeptical head in the crowd: that of the first-mate Starbuck.

While the rest of the crew is captivated by Ahab’s passion and rhetoric, Starbuck becomes a doubter. Wait, Starbuck says, isn’t the whale that you’re winding us up about the same one that took off your leg? Ahab isn’t pleased to have his second-in-command spilling this fact to the crew, but Ahab quickly turns it to his advantage: “‘Aye, aye,’ he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; ‘Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!'”

So, now the leader has won the sympathy vote among the crew, who were already fired up about their white-whale hunting mission. As a leader, Starbuck feels an obligation to quell these fires. He and Ahab have a tête-à-tête right there in front of the crew.  Starbuck says he’ll gladly go up against the white whale “if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow.” After all, he’s a professional whaler, not some avenging angel.

Ahab tries to convince Starbuck that he is missing the bigger picture and overly focused on the business angle of whaling. But Starbuck is a hard case: “Vengeance on a dumb brute!” he says, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” But Ahab doesn’t give up. He tries to sell Starbuck on the philosophy behind his obsession. Then, seeing that isn’t working, he goes with a more practical argument:

Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck!

Ahab has already convinced the crew. Starbuck knows Ahab’s plan is madness, but the wily captain knows which buttons to push. Be loyal, Ahab argues, and even if you can’t do that, be aware that you have no followers. Then Ahab uses one more argument:

Reckon it. ‘Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck. What is it more? From this one poor hunt, then, the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back, when every foremast-hand has clutched a whetstone? Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak!—Aye, aye! thy silence, then, THAT voices thee. (ASIDE) Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.”

It’s not so much an argument, of course, as it is an appeal to Starbuck’s vanity. Still, it helps win the day. Once again, Ahab shows that he is — if we can forget his mania for a moment — an extremely persuasive leader.

Melvillian Management Lesson: If the top leader shows questionable behavior, the second-in-command may need to choose between loyalty to the top leader (on whom their job may depend) and loyalty to the organization as a whole. This sounds like an easy dilemma to solve: the company should come first. But it’s seldom that simple. There are complicated situations, dangerous politics, blurry moral lines, and mixed loyalties. Before a person even accepts the job of second-in-command. they should know where their loyalties and ethical lines lie. That way, if their loyalties are ever torn, they will know exactly on which side of the line they should stand.

The second-in-command should be prepared to leave. When something bad happens, they will get little if any credit for falling on their proverbial sword. So, the second-in-command should have an exit plan. This can be emotionally difficult since such leaders are often deeply committed to their organizations and the top leader. They may even have hope that they will one day become the top leader.

But they need to network and keep their options open. If the second-in-command does decide they need to leave, they should have an idea of where they might go or what they’d like to do next. Of course, Starbuck had it especially tough, not being able to move on from the Pequod even once it became clear his boss was implacably insane. Sadly, poor Starbuck finds himself on a literal, not just metaphorical, sinking ship. Next time you get one of his coffees from your local barista, please offer up a toast to our embattled managerial brother.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons: photo by Joe Mabel

The Absurd Leader in Moby-Dick

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

In Moby-Dick, Queequeg may have a limited grasp of English, but he’s still tells great stories. One of my favorites is about the time that a commander from a grand merchant ship attended a royal wedding in Rokovoko, Queequeg’s island home.  This is how the scene highlighting the nature of the absurd leader unfurls:

This Captain marches in, and being assigned the post of honour, placed himself over against the punchbowl, and between the High Priest and his majesty the King, Queequeg’s father. Grace being said,…the High Priest opens the banquet by the immemorial ceremony of the island; that is, dipping his consecrated and consecrating fingers into the bowl before the blessed beverage circulates. Seeing himself placed next the Priest, and noting the ceremony, and thinking himself—being Captain of a ship—as having plain precedence over a mere island King, especially in the King’s own house—the Captain coolly proceeds to wash his hands in the punchbowl;—taking it I suppose for a huge finger-glass.

You almost feel sorry for the captain here. In uncertain territory, he just seems to be following the rule, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  But it’s clear that his arrogance is his undoing and so rightly leads to his humiliation as Queequeg’s people break out into laughter.

Here’s the interesting thing: We view “arrogance” or an “air of superiority” as negatives in a leader. But we also laud leaders for an “air of confidence” or “self assurance.” The distinctions are usually a matter of degree or perception. The key idea is that leaders often benefit by sending the signal that that they know what they’re doing and are damned confident doing it.

All too often, this backfires. The leader, reluctant to show any signs of uncertainty that could be construed as weakness, winds up looking absurd. More importantly, they offend when they mean to impress.

Melvillian Leadership Lesson: It’s quite fashionable to talk about how leaders should become better “listeners.” In this case, the fashion is correct. In uncertain circumstances, it is usually best to maintain an air of dignified attention. Don’t try to bluff your way through.  Allow others to educate you. If you’re an attentive and appreciative student, you will wind up impressing anyway (or, at least you’ll impress the people worth impressing).  When in doubt, ask yourself, “Am I about to put my fingers in a punch bowl here?” And if you do happen to wind up with punch on your fingers, feel free to laugh at yourself.  At least one in a while, we are all bound to look absurd.

Featured image from Bequest of Edith Pryor, 1935