The Wasted Right Hand of the Leader

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

For every knight, there is a squire. They are the stewards, the attendants, the equerries, the aides. They work behind the scenes, carrying shields, replacing swords, caring for horses. In short, they are the right hands of their bosses, making knighthood possible.

So what can Moby-Dick tell us about squires? In the great novel, the “squires” are the harpooners:

Each mate or headsman, like a Gothic Knight of old, is always accompanied by his boat-steerer or harpooneer, who in certain conjunctures provides him with a fresh lance, when the former one has been badly twisted, or elbowed in the assault; and moreover, as there generally subsists between the two, a close intimacy and friendliness.

In the age of knights, squires were more than just personal servants. They were often knights-in-training. Squiring was an aspect of succession management.

Things are different aboard the Pequod, however. The ship’s officers are “knights” within the confines of the whaling boats because they call the shots, carry lances and are responsible for slaying the dragons (i.e., whales). Their squires are the mighty harpooners, who set the officers up for the kill by hooking the “big fish” with their barbed spears.

There may be an intimacy and friendliness between the knights and squires of the Pequod, but there are no successions being planned. After all, none of the harpooners is a white American, and it’s an assumption that their various ethnicities  (one a Pacific Islander, one a Native American, and one a native-born African)  bar them from promotion.

Melville lets us know that this “glass ceiling” (to use more modern term) was not unusual in the 1800s, despite the amazing “workforce diversity” of the age. Indeed, this racism was institutionalized across various industries but especially in the whale fishery. He writes,

Not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born, though pretty nearly all the officers are. Herein it is the same with the American whale fishery as with the American army and military and merchant navies, and the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American Canals and Railroads. The same, I say, because in all these cases the native American liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles.

This is ugly stuff, of course. It assumes that (white) Americans are somehow more intelligent and able than the rest of the (non-white) world. Melville did not invent the idea. It was pervasive in his time. There are many times in the novel when our narrator Ishmael, a white non-officer, expresses his skepticism of the whole class structure, but he can’t refute its reality.

And so it is that the harpooners of the Pequod are viewed as more brawn than brain, despite the canniness that Melville instills in the character of Queequeg and others.  Esteemed squires they may have been, but they were barred from the leadership pipeline. Such a waste.

Have things changed since? Not as much as we might hope. Recently a Washington Post report found, for example, that “only 8 percent of ‘C-suite’ executives — the highest corporate leaders, often those reporting to the CEO — are Black.”

Queequeg may have been a gifted harpooner and squire to first mate Starbuck, he may have been the son of a king and bosom buddy to Ishmael, he may have been a wise world traveler and courageous saver of lives, but it’s hard to know if he’d be a successful job applicant today. And, if he were, would a less obvious but still often impervious glass ceiling bar his way up the leadership ladder? Again, hard to know. The answer to these questions would depend on whether some corporate leader has advanced well past the prejudices of the Victorian whaling era.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Leaders often lean hard on their “squires.” In some cases, these squires are people the leaders are grooming for other leadership positions. But in many other cases they are relying on these people as a support and have no intention of developing them further. That’s okay if these squires are executive assistants who have no other ambitions (and I should note that many executive assistants do indeed have other ambitions).  But it’s not okay to keep someone in a subordinate position just because they are exceedingly useful there. It’s especially not okay if those squires are kept from being promoted simply because they aren’t American-born white men, a category that, on average, remains pretty goshdurn privileged about 170 years after Moby-Dick was written.

Featured image by J. Mathuysen: Knappe in einer Waffenkammer (Squire in an Armory . Öl auf Holz. 

The Disappointing Sojourn of Prince Queequeg

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

Although Captain Ahab was named for a wicked king, there is only one leader of actual royal blood in the Moby-Dick: the cannibal Queequeg.

Queequeg, we learn in Chapter 12, wanted to be a great leader to the people of the island-nation Rokovoko, where his father was High Chief. To accomplish that, he strove to learn more about Christendom, having been exposed to a whaling ship that had taken harbor on Rokovoko. After all, the people aboard that great whaling ship seemed to have powerful ways and technologies. Prince Queequeg wanted to draw lessons from these foreigners, educating himself in “the  arts whereby to make his people still happier than they were; and more than that, still better than they were.”

But the captain of the whaling refused to take Queequeg aboard, stymieing the ambitious prince. So, like any good leader, he demonstrated boldness and ingenuity in the face of obstacles.

Alone in his canoe, he paddled off to a distant strait, which he knew the ship must pass through when she quitted the island. … Hiding his canoe, still afloat, among these thickets, with its prow seaward, he sat down in the stern, paddle low in hand; and when the ship was gliding by, like a flash he darted out; gained her side; with one backward dash of his foot capsized and sank his canoe; climbed up the chains; and throwing himself at full length upon the deck, grappled a ring-bolt there, and swore not to let it go, though hacked in pieces.

After much ado, stubborn Queequeg was made a member of the crew, where he did indeed learn the ways of the Christians. “But, alas!,” writes Melville, “the practices of whalemen soon convinced him that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than all his father’s heathens.” Things were no better when he got to places such as Sag Harbor and Nantucket, so Queequeg gave up his quest for wisdom among these strange peoples: “Thought he, it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan.”

Poor Queequeg’s sojourn is sad but not so uncommon among leaders. They frequently go to great lengths to gain valuable insights from outside their enterprises. They devour business books on airplanes, seek out the “best practices” of their competitors, and hire many a well-groomed and pricey consultant. Sometimes it pays off.

But sometimes it’s a bloody waste of time. The grass isn’t always greener just beyond. A company can twist itself into a pretzel trying to imitate a best practice from another company, only to later find that the company in question abandoned that stupid practice a year or two ago. Or employees can run screaming from the conference room after a CEO announces a major new initiative based on some best-selling business book written by yet another fashionable weirdo — maybe a dog-training Buddhist priest raising lamas in the Andes.

Melvillian Management Lesson: So, what is the leadership lesson to be learned here? First, it’s okay be bold in the quest for knowledge. Queequeg’s ambitions and instincts are wonderful and courageous. But the leader must also avoid being a sucker over the long haul. When Queequeg found out that the foreigners, despite their huge and impressive whaling canoes, knew even less about the art of happiness than his own peoples, “poor Queequeg gave it up for lost.”

In fact, he realized he needed to “unlearn” some of the weirdness in which he’d been indoctrinated. Only then could the chastened prince return home and take his rightful place as a wise leader. May we all have his wisdom to know when to be bold in our learning, when to ignore the BS, and when to actively try to unlearn stuff that is holding us back.

Featured image: Image from the 1930 edition of Moby-Dick, illustrated by Kent Rockwell

The Absurd Leader in Moby-Dick

One in a series of blog posts about management 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 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 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 Management 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 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/6794. Bequest of Edith Pryor, 1935

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

The Gloriously Flawed Leader

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

In the business world, we love our legendary leaders. They are swash-buckling heroes who take over floundering corporate ships and set them to rights. Every decision they make sparkles like polished brass. Every course they set is true. Every speech they make rings as brightly as a gold doubloon.

It’s all a bunch of crap, of course. In most cases, even leaders of successful enterprises have done lots of dumb things, from betting on the wrong business models to alienating key employees to engaging in quasi-unethical exploits. But as long as their companies have enjoyed lots of growth during their tenure, most of this gets swept under the proverbial rug, except by the very best business biographers.

Melville is more honest about leaders than most of the existing biz lit. The leaders on the Pequod have some lousy qualities along with their good ones. Let’s take the second mate Stubb, for example. He has his fair share of flaws as a leader, but sometimes he makes us proud.

One of those moments occurs in the chapter “The Monkey Rope,” which starts with Ishmael’s noble cannibal buddy Queequeg doing the kind of job that would give your average OSHA official conniptions. Even as crew members with sharp blades strip the whale of its blubber, Queegueg — who is responsible for fixing the whale to the ship with a hook — tries to stand atop the gigantic carcass “half on the whale and half in the water, as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath him.”

There are lots of options for getting killed or maimed in this job. You can can be sliced with a blade, or smashed between the ship and the whale, or drowned underneath, or even chomped by sharks in a whale-devouring feeding frenzy:

Right in among those sharks was Queequeg; who often pushed them aside with his floundering feet. A thing altogether incredible were it not that attracted by such prey as a dead whale, the otherwise miscellaneously carnivorous shark will seldom touch a man.

It is, in short, a good day’s work, the kind of enterprise that makes your average death-defying harpooner a tad parched. But when the exhausted Queequeg “with blue lips and blood-shot eyes” at last climbs back on board the ship, the ship’s steward hands him a lukewarm cup of ginger and water.

This action sets Stubb off on one of the best libation-based rants in literary history. The following quote is just a portion of his diatribe:

“Ginger? Do I smell ginger?” suspiciously asked Stubb, coming near. “Yes, this must be ginger,” peering into the as yet untasted cup. Then standing as if incredulous for a while, he calmly walked towards the astonished steward slowly saying, “Ginger? ginger? and will you have the goodness to tell me, Mr. Dough-Boy, where lies the virtue of ginger? Ginger! is ginger the sort of fuel you use, Dough-boy, to kindle a fire in this shivering cannibal? Ginger!-what the devil is ginger?-sea-coal? firewood?-lucifer matches?-tinder?-gunpowder?-what the devil is ginger, I say, that you offer this cup to our poor Queequeg here.”

The beleaguered steward claims it was not his idea but that of Aunt Charity, the well-meaning sister of one of the owners of the Pequod. She had given him the ginger and “bade me never give the harpooneers any spirits, but only this ginger-jub-so she called it.”

The Pequod’s harpooners are, of course, all mighty men of the “heathen” (meaning non-Christian) and “savage” (meaning non-White) persuasion. However weirdly racist it may be, Aunt Charity no doubt thought she was doing her Christian duty in protecting the harpooners from the evils of drink. Stubb, to his credit as a leader, would have none of it.

Image by BrokenSphere. A US Navy grog measure cup, ca. 1850 on display at the Marines’ Memorial Hotel in San Francisco, California.

In a comradely show of respect for employee diversity (not to mention dauntlessness), Stubb went down and got a dark flask filled with “strong spirits” and handed it over to Queequeg as a reward for his dangerous work. He also got Aunt Charity’s tea-caddy of ginger and tossed the damned stuff overboard.

Okay, maybe the fact that Stubb bellowed at, bullied and whacked at the order-following steward would disqualify him as Leader of the Year…. even in the 1800s.  And, I suppose that encouraging your employees to drink on the job is not exactly in the HR 101 handbook. Yet, with all his imperfections, Stubb displays a very leader-like quality in standing up for the rights of his talented harpooners to be rewarded after facing down the sharks at work. It should indeed be a right for us all.

Melvillian Leadership Lesson for the Day: By all means, stick up for the rights of your crew when you see them being infringed on, especially when their rights are linked to something as vile as racism. But avoid the kind of blustering and bullying that diminishes your good intentions.

Featured image: Whale Fishing Fac Simile of a wood cut in the cosmographie universelle thevit in polio paris 1574

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