Poor Peleg’s Leadership Blunder

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

I know…that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody—desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off. And once for all, let me tell thee and assure thee, young man, it’s better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one.

–Captain Peleg’s thoughts on Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick

Poor Peleg. He’s the perfect prototype of the venture capitalist – one of the owners of the ill-fated ship Pequod – who literally sinks his money in a catastrophic investment: that is, crazed Captain Ahab’s venture. What I love most about this particular passage is that Peleg is simultaneously both right and infamously wrong.

The “moody good captain” line is golden – in theory. Sure, it’s great to have a leader who knows how to tell and take a joke, especially if the jokes aren’t the snarky, sarcastic types that can waft through a corporate culture like toxic gas. But a leader had better be able to do more than hit a punchline. A captain who regularly sends the ship into the shoals ain’t much of a captain, no matter how lilting his laughter.

On the other hand, a crew can take some moodiness – maybe some surliness – from a captain who really knows her trade and keeps things ship shape, even in the big waves.

But, though right in theory, Peleg was way off in fact. Ahab’s desperate moodiness will not “pass off.” Not by a long shot.

Melvillian Management Lesson: “Thou shalt not delegate a critical enterprise to someone, even to someone you’ve trusted in the past, who has been through a major ordeal if you’re still not sure how they’re going to come out the other end.” Peleg should have waited before sending Ahab out again, especially since there would be no overseeing the voyage of the Pequod once it cast off.

As an investor, Peleg paid for his leadership sin, but he didn’t pay nearly as dearly as Ahab’s crew. That’s always the problem with leadership sins: they cascade downward and outward, rippling through oceans.

Featured image from Petesimon, 10 March 2009, Wikimedia Commons.

What Moby-Dick Can Teach Us About Recruitment (Part II)

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

The Leader as Talent Magnet

Some management gurus have opined that one of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to serve as a “talent magnet” for their firms. If you think this is a modern insight, think again. Chapter 18 of Moby-Dick will set you straight.

This is when Ishmael’s bosom buddy Queequeg arrives on the wharf to sign up as a crew member aboard the fated Pequod. Ishmael, as you may recall, had already been grilled by the ship’s owners, the Abbott-and-Costello-like Captains Peleg and Bildad. He’d been accepted, however halfheartedly, as part of the crew.  Now it is Queequeg’s turn for an interview.

The start of that process was inauspicious enough to make any immigration hard-liner proud: “Captain Peleg in his gruff voice loudly hailed us from his wigwam, saying he had not suspected my friend was a cannibal, and furthermore announcing that he let no cannibals on board that craft, unless they previously produced their papers.”

But wait. Were there green cards back the early 1800s? No, actually, the two diversity-challenged ship owners are looking for proof that Queequeg has converted to Christianity. Ishmael, thinking fast on his feet, blows some smoke about how Queequeg is a member of the “lasting First Congregation of this whole worshiping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in THAT we all join hands.”

Captain Peleg is in no way convinced by this little sermon, but he is amused enough by it to take the job interview to the next step.  So, Queequeg gets the job experience question that had so befuddled Ishmael. “Did you ever stand in the head of a whale-boat?” Peleg asks.

Being of the “show, don’t tell” school of thought, Queequeg jumps directly to the competency assessment part of the interview. Harpoon in hand, he takes aim at a small drop tar floating the water and lets fly: “he darted the iron right over old Bildad’s broad brim, clean across the ship’s decks, and struck the glistening tar spot out of sight.”

A normal interviewer might take it somewhat amiss when a tattooed candidate nearly skewers his partner’s head while demonstrating a skill set. Not Peleg, however. This is a leader with an eye for talent, however unconventionally it’s displayed. Not losing a beat, he shouts, “Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship’s papers. We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we’ll give ye the ninetieth lay, and that’s more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket.”

Yep, paying well for star talent is nothing new either. Even though Peleg doesn’t know Queequeg’s name much less his religion or anything else, he wastes no time signing him up. Peleg is a talent magnet, alright, and he won’t be losing his chance to attract Queequeg’s iron, come hell or high water.

Melvillian Management Lesson: When you see terrific talent, put aside prejudice and be willing to look beyond conventions. Act quickly (though perhaps not quite as quickly as Peleg) and be willing to pay for that talent. It’ll be a bargain in the long run.

Feature image: Illustration from Moby-Dick - Ishmael and Queequeg are directed to the Pequod, by Augustus Burnham Shute