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