The Mysterious Leader

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

For better and worse, a lot of high-level leaders carry with them an air of mystery. This has its advantages, with the mysterious leader often seeming to be beyond ordinary human fallibilities.

Seldom has any leader in literature been more mysterious than Captain Ahab. For many long pages in Moby-Dick, Ahab is only an elusive character of legend. We hear opinions about him, and even have our spines tingled by the shrouded prophecies of Elijah. But, despite the fact that he is a main character –- no, he is the main character — we do not see him in the flesh until Chapter 28.

Is this just suspense-building on the part of Melville? Pshaw. This is the author who spends chapter after chapter on the arcana of the whaling industry. Melville can create suspense, but he cares little about its conventions, being more artist than craftsman. No, he is doing more than whetting our appetites; he is explaining, among other things, the nature of certain kinds of leaders.

I say “certain kinds” because mystery does not typically surround level-one supervisors or even most middle managers.  Like them or hate them, we at least think we know them and their foibles. There’s something about the person at the top that’s different. 

Maybe it’s that they are less accessible, as Ahab is throughout so much of the novel. Maybe it’s that they have all the power, or seem to. Maybe it’s because they do not want to be known. Being known means forging human bonds, and those bonds may make the leader weak in the face of hard decisions such as terminations, layoffs, discipline and the like. Or maybe it’s because everyone is projecting onto them so many abstracted emotions: hope, fear, envy, anger, and the rest. The top leader becomes less a person than an eidolon.

Even before he meets Ahab, Ishmael feels the mystery of him:

I … felt a strange awe of him; but that sort of awe, which I cannot at all describe, was not exactly awe; I do not know what it was. But I felt it; and it did not disincline me towards him; though I felt impatience at what seemed like mystery in him, so imperfectly as he was known to me then.

And, later, Ahab seems more a force a nature than person prone to weaknesses and self-doubt. This is by design. Although he is fearful and uncertain when encountering the white whale he seeks, Ahab is heard to mutter, “How valiantly I seek to drive out of others’ hearts what’s clinched so fast in mine!” This is part of a leader does at crucial times: project the emotions that will benefit the group rather than the emotions that may be secretly plaguing him or her.

It’s no wonder, then, that top leaders so often seem enigmatic. They are actors playing to crowds, stirring emotions, sending messages in bold letters. It is brutally difficult to be genuine and approachable under these circumstances.

As for Ahab, he doesn’t even try to be approachable or, indeed, anything less than awe-inspiring. Awe is what drives his crew. If he must become an icon to achieve his goals, so be it.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Every top leader must carry the mantle of mystery differently, but all should be aware that it exists. Sometimes it’s a tool that can be used, for good or ill, as Ahab uses it. But mystery often alienates as well, making it harder to relate to or trust the leader. When that’s the case, the leader should probably go out of his or her way to become more approachable. More active listening and “managing by walking around” are some of the more common prescriptions.

The last thing that any leader wants is to continuously expand the bubble that surrounds him or her. They can become alienated in their solitude, and this can send them in dangerous, ill-advised directions as they become disconnected from others and, indeed, reality itself.

As I write this, I can’t help but think of the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who has become notorious for sitting at the end of a very long table in his meetings (in part due to Covid-19 fears). One has to wonder whether the air of mystery and isolation he has long cultivated has helped shape him into an Ahab-like character. That might go a long way in explaining the senseless tragedy of the Ukraine invasion.

Featured image from Grahn; Japanese Noh theatre mask from the 17th century