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"