The Oblivious Leader

I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it. – Ishmael, in Moby-Dick

A leader should never forget the gist of this quote from Herman Melville’s great novel. Whether a ship captain or other type of leader, you will often find out things well after the “sailors on the forecastle” or the employees on the shop floor know it.  Wise leaders do not “little suspect” this, as Melville says. They know it with every fiber.

Of course, even knowing about it doesn’t mean leaders can always avoid getting their “atmosphere at second hand.” As manager, I’ve seen how complex this can become. At different times, I’ve been in the know, I’ve been in the dark, and I’ve been in that gloomy place in between where suspicion and rumor dwell. The latter place is the land of “scuttlebutt,” which is, of course, originally a sailing term; drinking water on a sailing ship was stored in a “scuttled butt,” meaning a butt or cask that had been scuttled by making a hole in it so the water could be withdrawn.

Leadership Lesson: There’s no getting around organizational scuttlebutt, but my feeling is that the most honorable and open captains can keep it to a minimum. They take the trip to the forecastle as often as they can. They don’t need to go incognito like the undercover bosses of reality television to get a fresh breeze now and then.

But even if they can’t get to the forecastle as often as they like, there are surveys, 360s, focus groups and just “management by walking around.” These days, there are also less savory choices, such as keeping an eye on employees’ email, IMs and social networking activities.

I doubt the best leaders need to use these techniques, but watching employees via technologies remains an option. There’s no one rule that applies to every case. When in doubt, think about those negative as well as positive leadership models. “What would Ahab do?”,  for example, can be a useful question. Obsess over a personal grievance? Keep dark secrets from the crew? Call one of your direct reports a dog? Or maybe go all demagoguery to get what you want?

Yeah, usually you’ll want to go in a different direction from the not-so-good captain.

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