The Greatest Ad Hoc Leader in Moby-Dick

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

In Moby-Dick, the harpooner Queequeg serves as an excellent example of a hero who leads by example despite having little formal authority. Some might call him an ad hoc leader. There are various instances of this in the book, but let’s focus on one of the most dramatic.

It occurs in Chapter 13 where Queequeg and our narrator, Ishmael, are taking a packet schooner (which is basically a transport ship or ferry) to get to Nantucket. Due to a harmless dust-up between Queequeg and a racist “bumpkin,” the captain takes his eyes off the sails, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. The boom of the main-sail starts swinging around dangerously, knocking the bumpkin into the sea, and everyone else goes into a panic. Everyone, that is, except Queequeg:

[The boom] flew from right to left, and back again, almost in one ticking of a watch, and every instant seemed on the point of snapping into splinters. Nothing was done, and nothing seemed capable of being done; those on deck rushed towards the bows, and stood eyeing the boom as if it were the lower jaw of an exasperated whale. In the midst of this consternation, Queequeg dropped deftly to his knees, and crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks, and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it round the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped, and all was safe.

So, at a time when the top leader has failed in his duties and the followers are in the grip of chaotic indecision, Queequeg takes control. But his heroics don’t end there.

The schooner was run into the wind, and while the hands were clearing away the stern boat, Queequeg, stripped to the waist, darted from the side with a long living arc of a leap. …Shooting himself perpendicularly from the water, Queequeg, now took an instant’s glance around him, and seeming to see just how matters were, dived down and disappeared. A few minutes more, and he rose again, one arm still striking out, and with the other dragging a lifeless form. The boat soon picked them up. The poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump; the captain begged his pardon.

I’m arguing that Queequeg provides direction at a time when the traditional leadership hierarchy failed and so is a kind of ad hoc leader, but I realize that’s a bit of a stretch. Queequeg doesn’t really lead anyone else, except perhaps as a role model. He’s more of a single-handed hero who steps into the leaderless vacuum.

He accomplishes something quite similar (and even more remarkable) in Chapter 78. In that case, leadership isn’t missing or even negligent. Rather, the formal leader simply can’t react quickly enough in the face of a fast-moving crisis. Queequeg, by contrast, can react with alacrity, being an individual of great courage and decisiveness.

Melvillian Management Lesson:  Why is Queequeg so effective in a crisis? There are multiple reasons. First, he’s supremely self-confident but never arrogant. He rides the razor-edge between those two concepts with aplomb. Second, although he knows how to follow orders, he’s a free thinker.  So, he isn’t paralyzed when the traditional leadership system breaks down. Third, he is courageous. Fourth, he  has an internal moral compass. Fifth, he is a good comrade, loyal to his friends.

In the right kind of organization, these qualities might make Queequeg a great recruit into the leadership pipeline. But even he wished to remain what we today call an “individual contributor,” he would be an excellent employee to have around: someone willing and able to take the right actions at the right time. As leaders, we can encourage at least some of these qualities in others. Through their words and actions, leaders can, for example, cultivate self-confidence in their direct reports. And they can reward a willingness to help others.

The trick is to ensure that 1) the corporate culture doesn’t beat these qualities out of people who already have them, and 2) leaders who may be threatened by those qualities do not punish others for displaying them. We need our heroes in the workplace, whether or not they fit neatly into the artifice of the official org chart.

Featured image: Bild aus Seite 597 in "Die Gartenlaube". Image from page 597 of journal Die Gartenlaube, 1869