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 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

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

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

Today’s Recruitment Lingo

In the 21st century, we breed buzzwords as surely as office cubicles breed germs and intrigue. Buzzwords help us believe in progress, in the idea that our modern management ideas are superior to those invented, say, a couple of centuries ago. Recruitment is a case in point.

We don’t just hire folks anymore, we recruit them. No, strike that. We engage in talent acquisition after burnishing the employer brand.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m as likely to engage in such language as the next business writer–in fact, considerably more so. What’s more, some of these notions–and accompanying technologies–are quite helpful. Nonetheless, many the ideas themselves, if not the exact language, have been around a very long time.)

In the realm of recruitment, things are especially complicated right now amid the outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve had the so-called great resignation in which lots of employees have left their jobs in search of greener pastures (that is, new jobs, self employment, or no employment at all). This means there’s great pressure to become an employer of choice (i.e., a place where people actually like their jobs), engage in social recruiting (i.e., seek out employees through social media, sometimes leveraging employees’ networks), and tap into the talent community (i.e., groups where we think we can find a decent job candidate or two) via recruitment marketing strategies. It all sounds very modern.

So, should we find it comforting or disturbing to find that talent acquisition wasn’t all that different back in the days of sailing ships and whale-blubber-powered lighting?

Hiring the Clueless Neophyte

To get a feel for this, we can turn to the chapter in Moby-Dick called “The Ship”. There, our narrator Ishmael pokes around the wharf the same way a lot of modern job candidates poke around Like a newly minted college graduate with a liberal arts degree, Ishmael isn’t that picky. He wants any whaling job that smells of steady income. He is, in short, not someone that employers are willing to engage in a war for talent over.

Like many of today’s prospects, he relies on serendipity as much as anything else. Ishmael chooses from among the three whaling ships that, as luck would have it, are at the docks. How does he make a decision about where to apply? He just “looked around [the ship called Pequod] for a moment, and then decided that this was the very ship for [him and his buddy Queequeg].” Then he stumbles into a tent like a new graduate stumbles into any first interview:

“Is this the Captain of the Pequod?” said I, advancing to the door of the tent.
“Supposing it be the captain of the Pequod, what dost thou want of him?” he demanded.
“I was thinking of shipping.”
“Thou wast, wast thou? I see thou art no Nantucketer—ever been in a stove boat?”
“No, Sir, I never have.”
“Dost know nothing at all about whaling, I dare say—eh?”
“Nothing, Sir; but I have no doubt I shall soon learn. I’ve been several voyages in the merchant service, and I think that—”
“Merchant service be damned. Talk not that lingo to me. Dost see that leg?—I’ll take that leg away from thy stern, if ever thou talkest of the marchant service to me again. Marchant service indeed! I suppose now ye feel considerable proud of having served in those marchant ships. But flukes! man, what makes thee want to go a whaling, eh?—it looks a little suspicious, don’t it, eh?—Hast not been a pirate, hast thou?—Didst not rob thy last Captain, didst thou?—Dost not think of murdering the officers when thou gettest to sea?”

Okay, today’s recruiters may be a tad more subtle and considerably less hilarious, but the nature of the grilling often seems — at least from an emotional, impressionistic viewpoint — similar to the subjective experience of many inexperienced job candidates when the job market is tough: “So, you want a job, eh, supplicant…l mean applicant. What kind of invaluable experience do you have for us? Hmm, yeah, well, that’s pretty unimpressive. So, you’ll learn on the job? I wish I had a doubloon for every time I’ve heard that one. Besides, you look a little shady to me. You know we’re doing to do a background check, don’t you? We’ve also got a few personality tests and integrity tests for you. One can’t be too careful these days…”

Managing Expectations…and Then Some

Then there’s another similarity to our modern age. Captain Peleg, one of the owners of the Pequod, asks Ishmael the hardest question of all. Why do you want this job? Or, as he puts it, “What takes thee a-whaling? I want to know that before I think of shipping ye.”

Like any not-super-attractive, neophyte job candidate, Ishmael knows not to state the obvious answer:  “Cause I need food and shelter.” He intuits Peleg is looking for something more, as we’d say today, aspirational,  so he responds, “Well, sir, I want to see what whaling is. I want to see the world.”

And this is where Peleg, like any good interviewer, delivers a dose of reality to this low-level applicant. Today, we call it “managing expectations.” Peleg orders a puzzled Ishmael to “take a peep over the weather-bow” and then report back to him. The baffled Ishmael takes a gander and then tells Peleg that he saw “nothing but water; considerable horizon though.”

This watery sight is all the world that Ishmael will see if he goes whaling, Peleg assures him. Ishmael is  “a little staggered” by this insight but perseveres in his job quest. Peleg finally hires him for a pittance after a wonderful good guy/bad guy discussion with his business partner, Captain Bildad.

As a leader/recruiter, Captain Peleg has done his job. He’s vetted a decent if desperate entry-level candidate even while making him feel a bit unworthy and downright lucky to land the job. (This is, of course, not recommended for today’s recruiters.)

He’s even done his best to disillusion the applicant about any unrealistic expectations.  After all, Peleg needs somebody who will fit the culture, as we’d say today. No manager wants to hire someone who will wind up feeling deceived and mutinous after the first week on the job.

As for Ishmael, notice that he never divulges the fact that he has been a schoolmaster. He doesn’t need the “you’re overqualified for this job” speech from Peleg. Some things are better left unsaid in the interview process. On the other hand, Ishmael does mention he has a friend who is also looking for a job.  “Fetch him along, and we’ll look at him,” says Captain Peleg, who knows full well the power of “social recruiting.”

Melvillian Management Lesson

The recruitment process was subject to stereotypes and satire back in the era of Ahab, and remains so. Much has changed but much remains similar. Recruitment is, by definition, a judgmental process, one that strikes many people as threatening. (The applicant is threatened he or she will be rejected and the recruiter is threatened that he or she will make the wrong decision or give the wrong impression and be blamed for it).

The trick for the recruiters and leaders of any organization is to make the process both more effective and more humane. At the moment, that’s all to the good. Many employers are hungry for employees. But what happens in the next recession? Sooner or later, many a job candidate will find out.

Featured image: Herman Melville, American author. Reproduction of photograph, frontispiece to Journal Up the Straits.