The Absurd Leader in Moby-Dick

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

In Moby-Dick, Queequeg may have a limited grasp of English, but he’s still tells great stories. One of my favorites is about the time that a commander from a grand merchant ship attended a royal wedding in Rokovoko, Queequeg’s island home.  This is how the scene highlighting the nature of the absurd leader unfurls:

This Captain marches in, and being assigned the post of honour, placed himself over against the punchbowl, and between the High Priest and his majesty the King, Queequeg’s father. Grace being said,…the High Priest opens the banquet by the immemorial ceremony of the island; that is, dipping his consecrated and consecrating fingers into the bowl before the blessed beverage circulates. Seeing himself placed next the Priest, and noting the ceremony, and thinking himself—being Captain of a ship—as having plain precedence over a mere island King, especially in the King’s own house—the Captain coolly proceeds to wash his hands in the punchbowl;—taking it I suppose for a huge finger-glass.

You almost feel sorry for the captain here. In uncertain territory, he just seems to be following the rule, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  But it’s clear that his arrogance is his undoing and so rightly leads to his humiliation as Queequeg’s people break out into laughter.

Here’s the interesting thing: We view “arrogance” or an “air of superiority” as negatives in a leader. But we also laud leaders for an “air of confidence” or “self assurance.” The distinctions are usually a matter of degree or perception. The key idea is that leaders often benefit by sending the signal that that they know what they’re doing and are damned confident doing it.

All too often, this backfires. The leader, reluctant to show any signs of uncertainty that could be construed as weakness, winds up looking absurd. More importantly, they offend when they mean to impress.

Melvillian Leadership Lesson: It’s quite fashionable to talk about how leaders should become better “listeners.” In this case, the fashion is correct. In uncertain circumstances, it is usually best to maintain an air of dignified attention. Don’t try to bluff your way through.  Allow others to educate you. If you’re an attentive and appreciative student, you will wind up impressing anyway (or, at least you’ll impress the people worth impressing).  When in doubt, ask yourself, “Am I about to put my fingers in a punch bowl here?” And if you do happen to wind up with punch on your fingers, feel free to laugh at yourself.  At least one in a while, we are all bound to look absurd.

Featured image from Bequest of Edith Pryor, 1935