Breaking Bread with the Leader

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

Most of us have broken bread with a leader at some point. It’s tricky unless you have absolute trust in the leader.  You need to parse your words carefully without seeming to, even while trying hard to use the correct fork without spilling hard-to-pronounce soups on your silk tie (yeah, I have experience in this area).

It’s an old story and ripe for satire. In Chapter 34 of Moby-Dick, we see the situation amped up to an absurd degree:

Like the Coronation banquet at Frankfort, where the German Emperor profoundly dines with the seven Imperial Electors, so these cabin meals were somehow solemn meals, eaten in awful silence; and yet at table old Ahab forbade not conversation; only he himself was dumb. What a relief it was to choking Stubb, when a rat made a sudden racket in the hold below. And poor little Flask, he was the youngest son….For Flask to have presumed to help himself, this must have seemed to him tantamount to larceny in the first degree. Had he helped himself at that table, doubtless, never more would he have been able to hold his head up in this honest world; nevertheless, strange to say, Ahab never forbade him.

Okay, there’s a naval overlay to this that makes it unique, but it nonetheless represents another entertaining parody of leadership rituals. And it is set against the more democratic meals of the harpooners:

In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers. While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report to it. They dined like lords; they filled their bellies like Indian ships all day loading with spices.

This difference isn’t just about ethnicity or job titles; it’s about a lack of hierarchy. Corporate hierarchies have their uses. They lend structure and enhance clarity. They make it relatively easy to make decisions, since stalemates are (in theory) shuffled up the next level in the hierarchy where a yea or nay decision can be made. And they may even give us a sense of security in knowing who is really in control.

But dinner-time dysfunctions are a reflection of what is worst about hierarchies. The pecking order constrains and, by its very nature, changes the way people interact with one another. It stymies innovation. After all, how many stories do you hear about a group of people sitting around a meal with a leader and coming up with some really neat new business idea? No, these stories nearly always start with a group of friends and equals sitting around a table — one typically laden with beers — and dreaming up some world-changing idea bound to become entrepreneurial lore.

Melvillian Management Lesson: The dinner table is a litmus test for leaders. Are the diners who are subordinates relaxed around you? Do they dare speak their minds? And, if they do, is there an ominous intake of breath among the other diners? Perhaps most importantly, will things come back to haunt someone who says something impolitic?

The more a leader can create a free-flowing (though not anarchic) atmosphere in which everyone can speak their mind (without getting personal), the better the leader will tend to be. And the less that a leader retaliates against people who are expressing unpopular but potentially legitimate opinions, the more likely they will be seen as having integrity and being worthy of trust.

Featured image: Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, 14th century. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.