The Torn Loyalties of the Second-in-Command

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

I think the hardest job in management is being the second-in-command. The top leader suffers great scrutiny, but they also have much autonomy. The second-in-command, however, takes orders from the boss and must implement and defend his or her strategies even if they seem unworkable.

And then there’s the matter of torn loyalties if the top leader is engaging in questionable behaviors. Nowhere in literature is this more highly dramatized than in Moby-Dick. Amid Captain Ahab’s magnificently charismatic performance on the deck of the Pequod, there remains one cool and skeptical head in the crowd: that of the first-mate Starbuck.

While the rest of the crew is captivated by Ahab’s passion and rhetoric, Starbuck becomes a doubter. Wait, Starbuck says, isn’t the whale that you’re winding us up about the same one that took off your leg? Ahab isn’t pleased to have his second-in-command spilling this fact to the crew, but Ahab quickly turns it to his advantage: “‘Aye, aye,’ he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; ‘Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!'”

So, now the leader has won the sympathy vote among the crew, who were already fired up about their white-whale hunting mission. As a leader, Starbuck feels an obligation to quell these fires. He and Ahab have a tête-à-tête right there in front of the crew.  Starbuck says he’ll gladly go up against the white whale “if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow.” After all, he’s a professional whaler, not some avenging angel.

Ahab tries to convince Starbuck that he is missing the bigger picture and overly focused on the business angle of whaling. But Starbuck is a hard case: “Vengeance on a dumb brute!” he says, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” But Ahab doesn’t give up. He tries to sell Starbuck on the philosophy behind his obsession. Then, seeing that isn’t working, he goes with a more practical argument:

Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck!

Ahab has already convinced the crew. Starbuck knows Ahab’s plan is madness, but the wily captain knows which buttons to push. Be loyal, Ahab argues, and even if you can’t do that, be aware that you have no followers. Then Ahab uses one more argument:

Reckon it. ‘Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck. What is it more? From this one poor hunt, then, the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back, when every foremast-hand has clutched a whetstone? Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak!—Aye, aye! thy silence, then, THAT voices thee. (ASIDE) Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.”

It’s not so much an argument, of course, as it is an appeal to Starbuck’s vanity. Still, it helps win the day. Once again, Ahab shows that he is — if we can forget his mania for a moment — an extremely persuasive leader.

Melvillian Management Lesson: If the top leader shows questionable behavior, the second-in-command may need to choose between loyalty to the top leader (on whom their job may depend) and loyalty to the organization as a whole. This sounds like an easy dilemma to solve: the company should come first. But it’s seldom that simple. There are complicated situations, dangerous politics, blurry moral lines, and mixed loyalties. Before a person even accepts the job of second-in-command. they should know where their loyalties and ethical lines lie. That way, if their loyalties are ever torn, they will know exactly on which side of the line they should stand.

The second-in-command should be prepared to leave. When something bad happens, they will get little if any credit for falling on their proverbial sword. So, the second-in-command should have an exit plan. This can be emotionally difficult since such leaders are often deeply committed to their organizations and the top leader. They may even have hope that they will one day become the top leader.

But they need to network and keep their options open. If the second-in-command does decide they need to leave, they should have an idea of where they might go or what they’d like to do next. Of course, Starbuck had it especially tough, not being able to move on from the Pequod even once it became clear his boss was implacably insane. Sadly, poor Starbuck finds himself on a literal, not just metaphorical, sinking ship. Next time you get one of his coffees from your local barista, please offer up a toast to our embattled managerial brother.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons: photo by Joe Mabel