The Spellbinding Leader

One in a series of blog posts about leadership 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, such as being a spellbinding leader, 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 Leadership 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