The Leader Makeover

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

John Barrymore’s Ahab, from Observationnotes

This is a departure from the other Ahab posts on this blog in that it’s not about a specific chapter in the book. Instead, this is a quick bit of balladry, inspired by the avid polishing work carried out by the plethora of hard-working public relations pros on behalf of their companies and leaders. Here’s a short poem on how a hired hand might provide a restoration of the reputation of Ahab:

The Makeover

When my boss told me about our new client,
I thanked her, quietly excused myself,
strolled onto a nearby smoking terrace,
then squealed alone with urgent delight.

Ahab! Ahab! Ahab! I chanted to myself.
“Makeover of the Millennium” they’d print in a bold,
45-point font above the fold, a striking sanserif
across my nose, PRWeek posted on my brow.

“Start by tarring Ishmael,” the boss had urged.
“Some depressed sailor-schoolmaster harboring
violent, hat-knocking, anti-social obsessions;
his word shouldn’t mean squat in this town.”

Yes, and then I’ll need a social media angle,
maybe start with anonymous Wikipedia retouches:
“Tyrannical captain” to “committed leader”;
“monomaniacal desire” to “impassioned focus.”

Stress his courage overcoming a disability,
his refusal to take a penny of workers’ comp,
a sacrificing, Quaker-modest company man walking
the peg-legged talk, a Steve-Jobs perfectionist.

And ultra-master motivator to boot! Yeah, with
mast-hammering, doubloon-flashing showmanship,
a productivity-enhancing, pay-for-performance pro,
the original Jack Welch with more crust and courage.

His only flaw an aversion of evil. Even Ishmael’s
words, untwisted, tell that tale, with grisly Moby not
just killer but incarnation of “malicious agencies,”
the Ahab Christian pit against the Devil itself.

O Captain! My Captain! The Whitman poem truly
honors you, great Ahab, not poor old Abraham.
Both being lanky, bearded greats on much-weathered ships,
vessels grim and daring – an easy mistake to make.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Right up until the day he got them all killed, a lot of crewmembers aboard the Pequod were drinking Ahab’s Kool-Aid. Even truly terrible leaders, if they can carve out their own brand of rhetoric and charisma, can attract avid followers. Donald Trump once boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

Well, no. It’s all too credible. People develop strong loyalties to truly terrible leaders all the time. It’s a story as old as humanity itself. And today, if you add in a little professional public relations with a large dash of media canniness, you can convince followers that the phoniest fabricators in the world are “plainspoken” or that the most selfish and cruel leaders are somehow self-sacrificing and caring.

So, we shouldn’t judge leaders (nor should they judge themselves) by their ability to attract and motivate followers. That is neither the purpose nor the mark of good leadership, as Moby-Dick clearly shows. The purpose and mark of a good leader is the ability to move people in a positive direction that does good in the world. That sounds sappy, and “good in the world” is all-too-open to interpretation. But if you want to go further, you’ll have to grab your sextant and dig out the star charts of Plato, Aquinas, Kant and the like. Even the great Melville can take us only so far into those deep waters.