Joining the Big Fat Club

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#Weight: 250-something in January, 2019

In January 2019, I wrote:

The obvious remedy to being fat is to stop eating so much.

But here’s the thing: I can’t seem to do it. Or, at least, I can’t seem to do it over the long run.

Look, there are thousands of diet and fitness books out there. I own some of them myself. But I know that this isn’t about eating more meat and less bread or whatever. This is less about my body than my mind. 

Having said that, I imagine there are some genetic components. In my family, we males tend to gain weight on our hips and only later does it creep up and around our stomachs. At the beach, it’s all too easy to identify us as siblings. 

But, hey, even if there is a genetic factor, that doesn’t mean I’m somehow fated to be fat. It just means that losing weight is a somewhat bigger challenge for me than for some other folks. 

Yet, that are a lot of other folks, of course. Not long ago, I was at the shuffleboard courts and decided to look for men that weren’t fat or, at least, overweight. Know what? It was a challenge. We fats guys are legion.

Yeah, I know. Shuffleboard, right? The ultra-low impact sport of fat fellows. Especially older fat fellows. But here’s the thing. It’s getting to be a pretty popular sport among the Millennial and Gen Z generations, and a lot of them are pretty heavy as well.

But, again, shuffleboard! 

Okay, so go ahead and Google that stuff. You’ll see that an astonishing 80% of U.S. men ages 50 to 54 are either overweight or obese. It’s a frigging American epidemic.  And, though we U.S. guys are the poster children of fat people, being fat is a global thing.

We fat folk are over 2 billion strong, at least 30% of the whole world’s population. The number of overweight and obese individuals in the world increased from 857 million (20%) in 1980 to 2.1 billion (30%) in 2013. And things aren’t getting any better. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percent of U.S. adults aged 20 and over who are overweight or obese was a whopping 71.6% in 2015-2016. 

Okay, so there’s not just a genetic component, there’s a cultural one. We denizens of the so-called developed world are just a lot more likely to be fat. Why? Take your pick.

  • Jobs where we mostly sit all day long
  • Lots of processed, tasty and calorie-packed foods
  • Entertainments (Netflix anyone?) where we also mostly sit or, even better, lounge
  • Tons of work and life stress, especially in the U.S.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. If we wanted, we could delve into the evils of advertising, the fantastic success of the modern agricultural revolution, and more. But you get the drift. There are a lot of external reasons so many of us have gotten fat.

And, for me, there are a lot of internal reasons as well, which I’ll get into later.

The Fat Men’s Clubs of Yesteryear

Does it matter? That’s a question I keep coming back to. At one time, being fat was fine, even trendy.

There actually were fat men’s clubs in the U.S. back in the day, meaning the late 19th to early 20th centuries. They were literally social clubs that you could only join if you weighed over 200 lbs (91 kg). Back then, the stereotype associated with being a fat man (and, yes, there was double standard for women even back then) was that they were financially successful, benevolent and, well, kind of jolly.

Times have changed, though. Now we fat folk are in a club that few folks want to be part of. Maybe that’ll change again in the future. For now, though, we are legion yet often still ashamed of our not-to-hot bodies.

Engraving showing the 15th Annual Clambake of the Fat Men's Association in Connecticut by Neosho Absecon

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"