The Karst Bridge: Darkness and Light in Florida Spring Country

I owe my love of springs to living in rural Florida. My family and I lived in Lake County, FL for years, and it was generally a happy time. Lots of hikes in the Ocala Forest, lots of visits to local springs such as Alexander, Juniper and Silver Glenn.

I didn’t worry much about politics back then. So what if I lived in a more conservative Florida county? No biggie. In local elections, I often voted for incumbents who’d reportedly (according to the local press, anyway) been doing a good job. These tended to be Republicans. Fine.

My Gulag

Times have changed. Today, partisanship has reached extraordinarily toxic levels, with some Americans espousing violence as a way to settle political differences. This is a kind of mass madness. When I expressed concern about what was happening on Jan. 6th, an old schoolmate of mine, now an avid Trump supporter,  wouldn’t condemn the violence. Instead, he told me he refused to be imprisoned in “my gulag.”

My gulag? I assured him I have no gulag on my modest estate. What would I do with one? I have a hard enough time tending to our unruly little stand of bamboo trees.

Gulag? Such a strange word, a Soviet word that I assume had been ringing in the tirades of certain social media posters or cable news personalities. A word that shapes and warps the realities of the people hearing and using the term.

Black Flags in a Green Country

I was reminded of this weird exchange when we were driving the country roads of the Big Bend region of Florida. It was not a surprise to see Trump flags and political posters dotting the country landscape. People do not give up their political allegiances very easily these days. Trump, enmeshed in many scandals that would have sunk earlier politicians, has proven this beyond any doubt.

What was less expected was the number of black American flags. Sometimes they’d fly on people’s front porches, or we’d see them lined up at the end of long rural driveways, or even waving in the backs of pickup trucks roaring by. I had never heard of, much less seen, these flags before. My first impression was of something ominous and surreal, something intentionally harkening back to the black shirts of Mussolini’s Italy.

Later on, I googled it to see what those flags portend. I saw some left-leaning media interpreting these flags in very grim ways. For example, on Salon I found the following explanation:

In one troubling new development, Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, “socialist liberals,” Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be “enemies” of “real America.” As media critic Eric Boehlert recently noted, the liberal opinion site Living Blue in Texas is sounding the alarm about the specific meaning of the black flag and the Republican-fascists support for terrorism and other political violence.

If I had been able to ask the drivers of these black-flag-sporting trucks what it meant to them, would they say something similar? Or, would they talk about standing up for their freedoms in a land ruled by “socialists” who wanted to put them in “gulags”? (Just by the way, we now have a total of just four democratic socialists among the 435 congresspeople in the U.S. House of Representatives, not exactly a tsunami of any type of socialism.)

As far as I can tell, black flags harken back to pirate flags. Black flags were flown to show that the pirates would provide no quarter to those on the ships they attacked. This means that they would fight to the death and take no prisoners, killing everyone in their path.

Some say that black flags (though probably not black American flags) were sometimes flown by the Confederacy. The Sun reports, “Confederate army soldiers flew the black flag to symbolize the opposite of the white flag of surrender. The black flag meant that the unit would not give in nor surrender and that enemy combatants would be killed.”

So, who are the perceived “enemy combatants” of today’s black flag wavers? I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, those enemies are largely imaginary caricatures of other Americans, which makes the sight of such flags especially troubling.

My guess is that American black flags probably mean different things to different people but generally symbolize a willingness to violently resist or attack whatever forces are viewed as aligned against them.

Spurious Divisions

The vast majority of Americans generally want the same things. That is, we want to live in a safe and secure environment. We want an economy in which we can find work. We want to feed our families, afford decent shelter, and enjoy some of goods things in life.

We want individual liberty balanced by enough collectivism to ensure things like good roads and bridges, a reasonably strong military, and enough social systems to help people who have fallen on hard times (as when they get sick or lose their jobs). In short, we still want–as Jefferson first put it–life, liberty and ability to pursue our own forms of happiness.

If we agree on all this, why is there so much outrage, animosity and division in our country today? Why do some people feel the need to fly black flags amid beautiful countryside?

Much of it boils down to leaders and media personalities intent on gaining power, influence and money by making Americans believe we are far more divided than we truly are. After all, demonization works. It works to keep to the powerful emotions of fear and loathing engaged, emotions that override our reason. 

Suddenly, we see threats everywhere. People who cross the border because they are desperate for work and a better life are viewed as dangerous “invaders.” The anxious parents of kids confused about their sexual identity are demonized as “groomers.” And people who simply disagree on political issues from tax burdens to energy policy are viewed as “enemies” rather than fellow Americans.

These grotesque exaggerations are used to keep our emotions charged so that cable channels can sell more advertisements and politicians can convince us that they are “fighting for us” rather than just cynically appealing to our darker selves so they can gain ever greater power.

Gorgeous Light

In many respects, the Florida Big Bend area is an Arcadia. The people (at least the ones we met) are friendly and good natured. The countryside is expansive fields–some farmland combined with lots pastures populated by horses, cows, goats and chickens.

But we were specifically there for the freshwater springs, which are often fantastic places of cool, crystalline waters set like jewels in the primeval greenery of old Florida cypress and oaks, maples, sweet gum and honey locusts.

Peacock Spring, by Cynthia Vickers

Springs are places of light. In the largest springs, there is a boil of water that can be seen from the surface, a boil that makes the light shimmer all around. Because the water is typically crystal clear, the light doesn’t just reflect off the surface, however, but fills the entire spring down to the very bottom. The best springs are living windows into sacred worlds from which flow, in tremendous volumes, that water so essential to our lives.

Glades of Shadow

But springs are also places of shadow and power. For every first magnitude spring, there are powerful pulses of water surging upwards from limestone caves. That’s why you will sometimes see intrepid cave diver types at the springs and sinks of Florida. They are, essentially, underwater spelunkers, a dazzling but dangerous hobby that has too often resulted in tragedy.

And then there are the spring denizens, not least of which are snakes and gators. Indeed, the caretakers of today’s Florida springs are not shy about informing visitors about the potential dangers via their signage.

So, it’s little wonder we were a tad nervous when we arrived at our first spring of the trip: Lafayette Blue. It was a weekday and, despite the fine weather, we had the entire spring to ourselves. That made the scene spookier than it would otherwise have been.

Lafayette Blue is unique in that the two parts of the spring are divided by a natural bridge made up of karst. It’s a remarkable sight. On the day we were there, the lighter part of the spring flowed out into the Suwanee River, frequented by schools of mullet and some larger fish that I took for bass. There were also smaller specimen such as sunfish and chubb. On the surface were thousands of waterbugs, moving dimples of light

On the other side of karst bridge is the deeper, darker part of the spring where I snorkled with less confidence, intimidated by shadows and rocky ledges. Even the two large turtles over whom I swam looked wary, unaccustomed to visitors in their dimly lit lair.

America Undivided

As we drove miles through rural Florida on our way to various springs, I thought about the ways in which Lafayette Blue reflects America itself: a mix of dark and light, a clearly divided yet ultimately connected and singular entity, an inspiring, beautiful yet intimidating and sometimes dangerous place.

I know it’s a strange and somewhat strained metaphor, but like the karst bridge over Lafayette Blue, the divisions between red and blue America appear rock hard. And, in fact, these perceived divisions could lead to the end of democracy itself in the U.S. But this isn’t a foregone conclusion. Lafayette is a single spring just as we are a single state in a still-united nation, no matter how much certain “leaders” want to turn us against one another.

The green and rural parts of Florida will always feel like home to me. Despite our rural/urban divides, all Floridians reside in the same fantastical, surreal landscape: a rainforest growing atop porous limestone through which flows cold, clear waters that burst and bubble up from these incredible, life-giving springs. Our divisions are mostly illusory, manufactured by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. The sooner we realize this, the better we’ll be able to savor the light and dark gifts of this preposterously beautiful state.

On Why Gen Z May Have a Great Future After All

Poor Gen Z. In the United States, the oldest members this generation (born between 1997 and 2012, give or take a few years) have only recently entered adulthood, and it’s been a pretty rough ride so far.

Let’s say the eldest are 25. That means that since their 18th birthdays, they’ve seen the divisive Trump years, the turmoil of the pandemic, an attempted insurrection, a sudden surge in inflation, record global warming, a couple of recessions (yeah, I’m calling this one even if the NBER isn’t), an invasion in Europe, the greatest amount of political polarization since the U.S. Civil war, and the descent of the U.S. political system into the category of flawed democracy.

It’s little wonder that they’re turning out to pessimistic about the future. The world in general and the U.S. in particular has looked like a real shit show in recent years, and the immediate future isn’t looking all that bright, either.

But will Gen Z really be the generation that comes to adulthood just in time to see economies collapse, the world burn up, nation states fall apart, and Orwellian authoritarian states become the norm?

Sure, it could happen, especially if they (and the rest of us) don’t fight against those dystopian futures. But here’s the thing. If you squint a bit, you can detect signs that the Gen Zers might have a pretty great future after all.

Here are just a few of the trends we can point to:

  • The emergence of a go-go green world: Few have commented on the trend so far, but renewable energy is growing at exponential rates. If we only confine ourselves to solar and wind globally, the rate of growth is doubling every 3.75 years. Even if we round this up to 4, these two energies alone will provide more power in 2034 than was generated globally in 2021. The future will be renewable, and soon. That’s not a bad way to spend your early adulthood.
  • The rise of the smart (and hopefully super helpful) machines: Artificial intelligence is advancing at remarkable rates, which may have massive implications for productivity, innovation and more. Recently DeepMind announced it had successfully used AI to predict the 3D structures of nearly every catalogued protein known to science: over 200 million proteins found in plants, bacteria, animals, and humans! Sure, it was hard to hear that astonishing news amid all the hubbub about the end of the Chaco Taco, but history will judge this a major historic event (DeepMind, not the Taco). If AI can so quickly be productive in this one extremely challenging area of science, then imagine the impact it can have on worker productivity in general. As productivity rates rise over the next decade or more, so will income per capita (in theory). Of course, those gains need to be properly redistributed throughout the workforce, but that’s a different challenge. Yes, powerful AI could potentially have a number of truly terrible repercussions as well, but let’s focus on the bright side here.
  • The dazzling advances in microbiology. The protein-folding achievement just noted is one part of a much larger set of advances in microbiology. CRISPR, for example, is an astonishing technology. The rapid creation of the Covid-19 vaccination was just one the modern miracles brought to you by microbiology. These advances will continue and, in fact, speed up due to aforementioned machine learning techniques. If we can avoid the specter of bioterrorism, these advances might well mean that Gen Z will be the healthiest and longest-living generation in history. Death? Hah. That was so 2020s!
  • The renaissance in reformed political systems. Yes, the U.S. as well as various other nations are in danger of turning away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. Based on the popularity of scary-ass demagogues like my governor Ron DeSantis, we might well see the Orban-ization of America in the near future. However, at the same time, there are various grassroots movements (e.g., RepresentUS) that are seeking to reform the more corrupt and dysfunctional aspects of government. Perhaps if the U.S. can build up its immunity to demagoguery and neo-fascism quickly enough, there could be a flowering of pro-democracy movements here and abroad. This could eventually lead not just to more democracy globally but to more functional forms of democracy than have ever existed.
  • The rise in environmental protections and the strengthening of Earth’s ecosystems. Humanity has done an enormous amount of harm to the global ecosystem, but, along with the advancement in renewables, there will also be more programs such as 30×30, which is is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. Now it even looks as if the U.S. might be able to pass the The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which would put about $385 billion into combating climate change and bolstering U.S. energy production through changes that would encourage cuts in carbon emissions. So, Gen Z may be the first generation to spend its early adulthood in a global culture that finally takes serious steps to heal much of the environmental damage humanity has already wrought

Sure, there are lots of things that could go disastrously wrong. Some of them surely will. But there are also a lot of things that could go very right. Since the Gen Zers can’t tell for sure, they can join one of the many movements to make things better.

At the very least, they’ll be able to enjoy the comradery of people trying to improve things. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to help create a way better world than the one they’ve inherited so far.

Featured image: By Dian Dong, Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot calling upon the public, with the youth, to take action in one of Fridays for Future's earlier climate strikes, 15 March 2019

On U.S. Misleadership

Generally speaking, it’s not our fellow Americans who are the problem. It’s the leaders — or, rather, the misleaders — desperately trying to keep Americans in a state of outrage and divisiveness for the purpose of ratings, money and power.

When they actually sit down and talk, Americans realize that they have most things in common. When they allow themselves to be immersed in their tribal echo chambers, however, they get the impression that the “others” are nothing like them.

We need to abandon our echo chambers and give up our outrage. The echo chambers are, I believe, typically run by bad people who don’t give a damn about us. The misleaders only want our fury, the path to their power.

Featured image: Filter Bubble Graphic by Evbestie. An echo chamber is "an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own." This echo chamber (yellow circle) is closed and insulated from rebuttal (8 arrows).

Are We All Crew on the Pequod Now?

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).

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

The Oblivious Leader

I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it. – Ishmael, in Moby-Dick

A leader should never forget the gist of this quote from Herman Melville’s great novel. Whether a ship captain or other type of leader, you will often find out things well after the “sailors on the forecastle” or the employees on the shop floor know it.  Wise leaders do not “little suspect” this, as Melville says. They know it with every fiber.

Of course, even knowing about it doesn’t mean leaders can always avoid getting their “atmosphere at second hand.” As manager, I’ve seen how complex this can become. At different times, I’ve been in the know, I’ve been in the dark, and I’ve been in that gloomy place in between where suspicion and rumor dwell. The latter place is the land of “scuttlebutt,” which is, of course, originally a sailing term; drinking water on a sailing ship was stored in a “scuttled butt,” meaning a butt or cask that had been scuttled by making a hole in it so the water could be withdrawn.

Leadership Lesson: There’s no getting around organizational scuttlebutt, but my feeling is that the most honorable and open captains can keep it to a minimum. They take the trip to the forecastle as often as they can. They don’t need to go incognito like the undercover bosses of reality television to get a fresh breeze now and then.

But even if they can’t get to the forecastle as often as they like, there are surveys, 360s, focus groups and just “management by walking around.” These days, there are also less savory choices, such as keeping an eye on employees’ email, IMs and social networking activities.

I doubt the best leaders need to use these techniques, but watching employees via technologies remains an option. There’s no one rule that applies to every case. When in doubt, think about those negative as well as positive leadership models. “What would Ahab do?”,  for example, can be a useful question. Obsess over a personal grievance? Keep dark secrets from the crew? Call one of your direct reports a dog? Or maybe go all demagoguery to get what you want?

Yeah, usually you’ll want to go in a different direction from the not-so-good captain.

Featured image from

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 venture capitalist – 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.

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 sin, 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 management lessons derived 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:

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 management 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, 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

Like it or not, a lot of high-level leaders carry with them an air of mystery.

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