The Wasted Right Hand of the Leader

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

For every knight, there is a squire. They are the stewards, the attendants, the equerries, the aides. They work behind the scenes, carrying shields, replacing swords, caring for horses. In short, they are the right hands of their bosses, making knighthood possible.

So what can Moby-Dick tell us about squires? In the great novel, the “squires” are the harpooners:

Each mate or headsman, like a Gothic Knight of old, is always accompanied by his boat-steerer or harpooneer, who in certain conjunctures provides him with a fresh lance, when the former one has been badly twisted, or elbowed in the assault; and moreover, as there generally subsists between the two, a close intimacy and friendliness.

In the age of knights, squires were more than just personal servants. They were often knights-in-training. Squiring was an aspect of succession management.

Things are different aboard the Pequod, however. The ship’s officers are “knights” within the confines of the whaling boats because they call the shots, carry lances and are responsible for slaying the dragons (i.e., whales). Their squires are the mighty harpooners, who set the officers up for the kill by hooking the “big fish” with their barbed spears.

There may be an intimacy and friendliness between the knights and squires of the Pequod, but there are no successions being planned. After all, none of the harpooners is a white American, and it’s an assumption that their various ethnicities  (one a Pacific Islander, one a Native American, and one a native-born African)  bar them from promotion.

Melville lets us know that this “glass ceiling” (to use more modern term) was not unusual in the 1800s, despite the amazing “workforce diversity” of the age. Indeed, this racism was institutionalized across various industries but especially in the whale fishery. He writes,

Not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born, though pretty nearly all the officers are. Herein it is the same with the American whale fishery as with the American army and military and merchant navies, and the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American Canals and Railroads. The same, I say, because in all these cases the native American liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles.

This is ugly stuff, of course. It assumes that (white) Americans are somehow more intelligent and able than the rest of the (non-white) world. Melville did not invent the idea. It was pervasive in his time. There are many times in the novel when our narrator Ishmael, a white non-officer, expresses his skepticism of the whole class structure, but he can’t refute its reality.

And so it is that the harpooners of the Pequod are viewed as more brawn than brain, despite the canniness that Melville instills in the character of Queequeg and others.  Esteemed squires they may have been, but they were barred from the leadership pipeline. Such a waste.

Have things changed since? Not as much as we might hope. Recently a Washington Post report found, for example, that “only 8 percent of ‘C-suite’ executives — the highest corporate leaders, often those reporting to the CEO — are Black.”

Queequeg may have been a gifted harpooner and squire to first mate Starbuck, he may have been the son of a king and bosom buddy to Ishmael, he may have been a wise world traveler and courageous saver of lives, but it’s hard to know if he’d be a successful job applicant today. And, if he were, would a less obvious but still often impervious glass ceiling bar his way up the leadership ladder? Again, hard to know. The answer to these questions would depend on whether some corporate leader has advanced well past the prejudices of the Victorian whaling era.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Leaders often lean hard on their “squires.” In some cases, these squires are people the leaders are grooming for other leadership positions. But in many other cases they are relying on these people as a support and have no intention of developing them further. That’s okay if these squires are executive assistants who have no other ambitions (and I should note that many executive assistants do indeed have other ambitions).  But it’s not okay to keep someone in a subordinate position just because they are exceedingly useful there. It’s especially not okay if those squires are kept from being promoted simply because they aren’t American-born white men, a category that, on average, remains pretty goshdurn privileged about 170 years after Moby-Dick was written.

Featured image by J. Mathuysen: Knappe in einer Waffenkammer (Squire in an Armory . Öl auf Holz.