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 an aspect of his leadership style. 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 broken bread with a leader at some point. It’s tricky unless you have absolute trust in the leader.  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 Disappointing Sojourn of Prince Queequeg

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

Although Captain Ahab was named for a wicked king, there is only one leader of actual royal blood in the Moby-Dick: 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

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 Spellbinding Leader

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

We know how bloody horrible Captain Ahab could be as a leader: ornery, self-absorbed, arrogant, insulting and oblivious to the needs of his crew. But if he were just a caricature of a bad leader, Moby-Dick would not be a classic. Ahab could also demonstrate some astonishing qualities, as occurs in Chapter 36:

He ordered Starbuck to send everybody aft. “Sir!” said the mate, astonished at an order seldom or never given on ship-board except in some extraordinary case. “Send everybody aft,” repeated Ahab. “Mast-heads, there! come down!”

Ah, the all-company meeting! In a big corporation, these are typically few and far between. We all know it means something is afoot. The CEO is about to make a grand pronouncement of some sort. Very often the words are intended to reassure the troops. Very often, they do just the opposite.

But Ahab is a pro. He knows well how to warm up his audience and wind up his troops. We are about to see what makes Ahab a leadership star:

“What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?”
“Sing out for him!” was the impulsive rejoinder from a score of clubbed voices.
“Good!” cried Ahab, with a wild approval in his tones; observing the hearty animation into which his unexpected question had so magnetically thrown them.
“And what do ye next, men?”
“Lower away, and after him!”
“And what tune is it ye pull to, men?”
“A dead whale or a stove boat!”

These men are whalers, by Jove. They know this litany. It excites them. It’s their life’s blood. Ahab knows that. He’s been one of them. “More and more strangely and fiercely glad and approving, grew the countenance of the old man at every shout; while the mariners began to gaze curiously at each other, as if marvelling how it was that they themselves became so excited at such seemingly purposeless questions.”

Ahab is the penultimate charismatic leader, the great catalyst that galvanizes them all. Only when they are properly entranced does he reveal what he really wants from them. In one of the most famous scenes in all literature, Ahab pulls out a large Ecuadorian doubloon made of a full ounce of gold. Then, with great drama and flair, he nails the magnificent object of avarice to the main-mast after crying out, “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke—look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!”

Now this is an incentive program, my friend — the kind that makes most fancy offerings by HR departments pale in comparison. Because this isn’t just gold worth a small fortune to these men. It represents danger and challenge, passion and adventure, adulation and acclaim — and, perhaps most important of all, it represents the approval from the great man, the one who has somehow lit their hearts with the flames of his own, private passion.

Ahab’s great goal may be monomaniacal, but look at how he wins them over! It’s masterly. Yes, we realize, showmanship counts in the art of leadership! It makes us wonder if maybe he isn’t so crazy after all. Isn’t many a leader utterly dedicated — obsessive even — about achieving his or her dreams? Is Ahab really so different?

There is one man in the clamorous crowd who thinks so, keeping a cool head amid these flaming passions. And that man has leadership responsibilities of his own. In the next post, we’ll get to see Ahab and his second-in-command Starbuck go mano-a-mano. It’s a beautiful, terrible thing. Stay tuned.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Never underestimate the power of charisma. It is an awesome leadership tool, one that can be used for good or ill.  And never underestimate a leader who you think is a “bad” one. Just because you don’t respect them doesn’t mean they can’t wind up winning the day via many of the skills we associate with “good” leadership. You can be a terrible person and yet show great leadership prowess. Life is complicated.

Featured image: Ecuadorian doubloon described in Moby Dick. Photographed by User:Pottewa

The Absurd Leader in Moby-Dick

One in a series of blog posts about management 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 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 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 Management 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 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/6794. Bequest of Edith Pryor, 1935

The Greatest Ad Hoc Leader in Moby-Dick

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

In Moby-Dick, the harpooner Queequeg serves as an excellent example of a hero who leads by example despite having little formal authority. Some might call him an ad hoc leader. There are various instances of this in the book, but let’s focus on one of the most dramatic.

It occurs in Chapter 13 where Queequeg and our narrator, Ishmael, are taking a packet schooner (which is basically a transport ship or ferry) to get to Nantucket. Due to a harmless dust-up between Queequeg and a racist “bumpkin,” the captain takes his eyes off the sails, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. The boom of the main-sail starts swinging around dangerously, knocking the bumpkin into the sea, and everyone else goes into a panic. Everyone, that is, except Queequeg:

[The boom] flew from right to left, and back again, almost in one ticking of a watch, and every instant seemed on the point of snapping into splinters. Nothing was done, and nothing seemed capable of being done; those on deck rushed towards the bows, and stood eyeing the boom as if it were the lower jaw of an exasperated whale. In the midst of this consternation, Queequeg dropped deftly to his knees, and crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks, and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it round the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped, and all was safe.

So, at a time when the top leader has failed in his duties and the followers are in the grip of chaotic indecision, Queequeg takes control. But his heroics don’t end there.

The schooner was run into the wind, and while the hands were clearing away the stern boat, Queequeg, stripped to the waist, darted from the side with a long living arc of a leap. …Shooting himself perpendicularly from the water, Queequeg, now took an instant’s glance around him, and seeming to see just how matters were, dived down and disappeared. A few minutes more, and he rose again, one arm still striking out, and with the other dragging a lifeless form. The boat soon picked them up. The poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump; the captain begged his pardon.

I’m arguing that Queequeg provides direction at a time when the traditional leadership hierarchy failed and so is a kind of ad hoc leader, but I realize that’s a bit of a stretch. Queequeg doesn’t really lead anyone else, except perhaps as a role model. He’s more of a single-handed hero who steps into the leaderless vacuum.

He accomplishes something quite similar (and even more remarkable) in Chapter 78. In that case, leadership isn’t missing or even negligent. Rather, the formal leader simply can’t react quickly enough in the face of a fast-moving crisis. Queequeg, by contrast, can react with alacrity, being an individual of great courage and decisiveness.

Melvillian Management Lesson:  Why is Queequeg so effective in a crisis? There are multiple reasons. First, he’s supremely self-confident but never arrogant. He rides the razor-edge between those two concepts with aplomb. Second, although he knows how to follow orders, he’s a free thinker.  So, he isn’t paralyzed when the traditional leadership system breaks down. Third, he is courageous. Fourth, he  has an internal moral compass. Fifth, he is a good comrade, loyal to his friends.

In the right kind of organization, these qualities might make Queequeg a great recruit into the leadership pipeline. But even he wished to remain what we today call an “individual contributor,” he would be an excellent employee to have around: someone willing and able to take the right actions at the right time. As leaders, we can encourage at least some of these qualities in others. Through their words and actions, leaders can, for example, cultivate self-confidence in their direct reports. And they can reward a willingness to help others.

The trick is to ensure that 1) the corporate culture doesn’t beat these qualities out of people who already have them, and 2) leaders who may be threatened by those qualities do not punish others for displaying them. We need our heroes in the workplace, whether or not they fit neatly into the artifice of the official org chart.

Featured image: Bild aus Seite 597 in "Die Gartenlaube". Image from page 597 of journal Die Gartenlaube, 1869

Leaders Hanging on Like Grim Death in Moby-Dick

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

Those who haven’t read Moby-Dick for a while often forget how uproariously funny the book can be. That’s partly because, like Shakespeare, Melville can turn on a dime, making you guffaw one minute and pulling you into dark drama the next.

In Chapter 53, “The Gam,”  Ishmael goes for the wry humor, satirizing the details associated with “the gam” — that is, the meeting between two captains of whaleships.  The idea is that one captain must make the trip over to the other captain’s ship in order to have a conversation (“the gam” in question). The tricky part is that whaleboats of the era didn’t have any extra “seats” because they hosted a full crew of rowers and no tiller at all. So the captain was forced stand up in the boat as it carried him to the other ship.  Being cargo was no easy task, as Ishmael relates:

[O]ften you will notice that being conscious of the eyes of the whole visible world resting on him from the sides of the two ships, this standing captain is all alive to the importance of sustaining his dignity by maintaining his legs. Nor is this any very easy matter; for in his rear is the immense projecting steering oar hitting him now and then in the small of his back, the after-oar reciprocating by rapping his knees in front…[I]t would never do…for this straddling captain to be seen steadying himself the slightest particle by catching hold of anything with his hands; indeed, as token of his entire, buoyant self-command, he generally carries his hands in his trowsers’ pockets… Nevertheless there have occurred instances, well authenticated ones too, where the captain has been known for an uncommonly critical moment or two, in a sudden squall say — to seize hold of the nearest oarsman’s hair, and hold on there like grim death.

You’ve got to love this image of a leader jealously guarding his dignity even if it means tugging the tresses of some poor schmuck just trying to do his job.

Have things changed so much? Oh sure, there is (one likes to think) less literal hair pulling now, but maintaining dignity remains a high priority for your average leader, even at risk of metaphorically mangling an employee or two. I hear tell of an exec who, when speaking to the organization or even in front of groups of clients, would make fun of one of his high-level direct reports. The stories were often of how bumbling the other was, making that person look like the clown of the company. In this case, the exec wasn’t exactly trying to protect his own dignity (I imagine he thought it was good-natured ribbing), but he seemed to be trying to make himself look clever, both by his talent as a raconteur and by pitting himself in stark contrast with the purported clown. It was (reportedly) pretty awful. Even as that direct report chuckled along with the joke like a bullied kid in high school, others would just wince. A hair pull might have been preferable.

Sometimes the hair-pulling is more of a bus-throwing. When the infamous bridge closure scandal rocked the world of Governor Chris Chistie, the New York Daily News editorialized with this headline: “Gov. Chris Christie’s load of bull: Fired aide Bridget Kelly merely a patsy in attempt to shelter Port Authority cronies, himself”. If true, that goes well beyond the innocent if arrogant hair-pull. On the other hand, it would also be a classic case of a leader looking for somebody to take the heat off him, allowing him to stand again with dignity during a major squall. The News put it bluntly:

Christie needed blood to express his outrage to the public, so he drew it from deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly for the sin, the governor said, of lying to him. Perhaps Kelly did lie, although it seems incredible that anyone would flat-out attempt to deceive an intense, emergency inquiry.

Christie is hardly the first or last leader to throw a direct report under the bus. Consider how many former employees one of our recent presidents tossed under a wide array wheels.

Sometimes, of course, the hair-pull is far more innocuous. How many of us have seen the example of a leader who, making some technology-related or other mistake during a presentation (or otherwise showing some area of ignorance), growls at some poor underling/handler who has been tasked with keeping him or her out of trouble? The inference is always that someone, anyone, is to blame for the hitch, certainly not the leader his or her self.

Then there’s the leader who goes out of his or her way to avoid any hair-pulling, preferring to stumble publicly than to grab at the nearest available head. Those leaders deserve a lot of credit, though I wonder how often they get it. Do they look weak as a result of allowing themselves to stumble? Do we, in fact, expect our leaders to be able to get away with a little hair-pulling now and then? Perhaps it’s all part of the leadership aura.

At any rate, Ishmael casts no particular blame in Moby-Dick. His is an amusing observation, not a sense of outrage. He indicates that like everyone else (and probably more so), leaders play their comic roles on life’s grand stage.

Melvillian Leaders Lesson of the Day: As a leader, try to avoid the hair pull. It does, in fact, make you look nearly as absurd as the stumble it is intended avoid. If you do wind up metaphorically pulling hair, be sure to apologize after the fact. If you’ve pulled hair literally, well, get a good attorney.

Featured image by Samuel Calvert (1828-1913) after sketch by William McMinn

The Gloriously Flawed Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Moby-Dick Can Teach Us About Recruitment (Part II)

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

The Leader as Talent Magnet

Some management gurus have opined that one of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to serve as a “talent magnet” for their firms. If you think this is a modern insight, think again. Chapter 18 of Moby-Dick will set you straight.

This is when Ishmael’s bosom buddy Queequeg arrives on the wharf to sign up as a crew member aboard the fated Pequod. Ishmael, as you may recall, had already been grilled by the ship’s owners, the Abbott-and-Costello-like Captains Peleg and Bildad. He’d been accepted, however halfheartedly, as part of the crew.  Now it is Queequeg’s turn for an interview.

The start of that process was inauspicious enough to make any immigration hard-liner proud: “Captain Peleg in his gruff voice loudly hailed us from his wigwam, saying he had not suspected my friend was a cannibal, and furthermore announcing that he let no cannibals on board that craft, unless they previously produced their papers.”

But wait. Were there green cards back the early 1800s? No, actually, the two diversity-challenged ship owners are looking for proof that Queequeg has converted to Christianity. Ishmael, thinking fast on his feet, blows some smoke about how Queequeg is a member of the “lasting First Congregation of this whole worshiping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in THAT we all join hands.”

Captain Peleg is in no way convinced by this little sermon, but he is amused enough by it to take the job interview to the next step.  So, Queequeg gets the job experience question that had so befuddled Ishmael. “Did you ever stand in the head of a whale-boat?” Peleg asks.

Being of the “show, don’t tell” school of thought, Queequeg jumps directly to the competency assessment part of the interview. Harpoon in hand, he takes aim at a small drop tar floating the water and lets fly: “he darted the iron right over old Bildad’s broad brim, clean across the ship’s decks, and struck the glistening tar spot out of sight.”

A normal interviewer might take it somewhat amiss when a tattooed candidate nearly skewers his partner’s head while demonstrating a skill set. Not Peleg, however. This is a leader with an eye for talent, however unconventionally it’s displayed. Not losing a beat, he shouts, “Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship’s papers. We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we’ll give ye the ninetieth lay, and that’s more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket.”

Yep, paying well for star talent is nothing new either. Even though Peleg doesn’t know Queequeg’s name much less his religion or anything else, he wastes no time signing him up. Peleg is a talent magnet, alright, and he won’t be losing his chance to attract Queequeg’s iron, come hell or high water.

Melvillian Management Lesson: When you see terrific talent, put aside prejudice and be willing to look beyond conventions. Act quickly (though perhaps not quite as quickly as Peleg) and be willing to pay for that talent. It’ll be a bargain in the long run.

Feature image: Illustration from Moby-Dick - Ishmael and Queequeg are directed to the Pequod, by Augustus Burnham Shute