For the Love of Oddball Leaders

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

I have a love/hate relationship with leadership competencies.  On one hand, I see the benefit of telling a young manager, “Hey, here are the competencies we associate with good leadership. Learn them and you’ll go far.” On the other hand, I hate the notion of the kind of cookie-cutter leadership in which managers see and react to problems in the same ways every time. It reminds me of the classic song “Little Boxes”:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

There were still plenty of leaders before the advent of leadership competencies, but there was less ticky-tacky sameness in the ways we thought about them. In Moby-Dick, Melville gives us an assortment of memorably idiosyncratic leaders, each of them bringing distinctive strengths and peculiar weaknesses to the management of the Pequod.

The Three Knights

The best overview of this cast of leaders occurs in Chapters 26 and 27, both titled “Knights and Squires.” The “knights” are the three “momentous men” who serve as officers aboard the Pequod. Because they each head up their own whale boat, Ishmael says they are “as captains of companies.” They may be momentous and knightly captains, but they are also very different.

First, there is Starbuck (for whom the coffee-house empire is named). If any leader is most traditional by modern standards, it is Starbuck, chief mate of the Pequod : “Looking into his eyes, you seemed to see there the yet lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life. A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds.”

Then, there is the second mate Stubb:  “A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests.” Today, Stubb would often be viewed as a cynical smart-ass type who gets his job done, even if in unsettlingly unorthodox ways.

Next is Flask, the third mate: “A short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales…So utterly lost was he to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to kill and boil.”

The Professional, Punchinello and Pragmatist

These three, with Ahab, represent the official leadership hierarchy of the Pequod but are, despite their common vocations, so different as to be types unto themselves. There is Starbuck the Professional, Stubb the Punchinello and Flask the Pragmatist.

They all have something to teach us about leadership, as we’ll detail in future posts. For now, however, we can imagine the types of leadership advice they’d get today from well-meaning mentors.  Starbuck would be the fair-haired boy, the one who aces all the leadership assessments, is inked into the succession plan, and is widely touted as a “high potential.” At least in some organizations, his one Achilles’ Heal might be an ethical center and religious faith that sometimes hampers him in the vicious bare-fanged, chimp-like infighting not unknown in the rarefied airs of corporate hierarchies.

Stubb, on the other hand, would likely be stuck in middle management, his superiors secretly harboring their resentments against his satirical quips and not-so-secretly labeling him as “unserious.” However he well scored on the LPI, or DISC, or Hogan, or Hays EI, or Myers-Briggs, Stubbs wouldn’t be considered exec material unless he learned to rein himself in and properly channel his impolitic thoughts and comments. (Yes, I feel his pain.)

Flask, I’m afraid, would hardly have a shot at the top spots. He is the quintessential manager with barely a lick of originality. Flask is a taker of orders and therefore a fine arrow for any exec to have in his quiver, being practical, literal and unsentimental. But the top spots in the executive chain go to those with some (if not too much) imagination. The only way Flask could make up for this is with great gobs of ambition, a willingness to surround himself with imaginative underlings whose ideas he could harness (or steal), and an undaunted willingness to mention “thinking outside the box” in every conversation he has with his superiors.

These same types — and many others — are still with us, of course. The only real difference is that we have our ticky-tacky assessments and subsequent trainings (aka, leadership development initiatives) to knock more of the rough edges off these jaggedly fascinating characters, giving them greater opportunities to fit into smooth, rounded holes like so many scrubbed golf balls rolling expectantly on immaculate, verdant greens.

Melvillian Management Lesson: By all means, develop your leaders. Use the leadership inventories and other tools at your disposal to help employees become more astute about good management practices. But don’t over-rely on such assessments, and don’t expect all your leaders to act in identical ways to the same situations. Give the Stubbs and Flasks opportunities and see if they rise to them. You don’t want an oddball bunch of unprofessional neurotics, but you also don’t want group-thinking automatons who look askance at those who seem a little different. Diversity — and not just gender and ethnic diversity — is quite alright. You want leaders who bring their own unique strengths and, yes, sometimes even idiosyncrasies to the organization. Life is too short to be constantly wedged into little ticky-tacky boxes that all look just the same.

Feature image: Aerial view of tract housing in Daly City, California, a suburb of San Francisco, which inspired Reynolds to write the song "Little Boxes"

The Angry, Arrogant Leader

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

Shortly after Captain Ahab makes his first appearance in Moby-Dick, we get an insight into an aspect of his leadership style. It’s night time, most of the crew is trying to sleep, and restless Ahab is above pacing the decks with his ivory leg. Ahab is in a mood:

He usually abstained from patrolling the quarter-deck; because to his wearied mates, seeking repose within six inches of his ivory heel, such would have been the reverberating crack and din of that bony step, that their dreams would have been on the crunching teeth of sharks. But once, the mood was on him too deep for common regardings; and as with heavy, lumber-like pace he was measuring the ship from taffrail to mainmast.

At this point in the story, Ahab is still a mystery to his crew, including Stubb, the wise-cracking second mate. So, when Stubb ascends to the deck to speak to the captain about the noise, he approaches him in a very Stubb-like way. Using an “unassured, deprecating humorousness,” he hinted to Ahab that “there might be some way of muffling the noise; hinting something indistinctly and hesitatingly about a globe of tow, and the insertion into it, of the ivory heel.”

By the way, the “globe of tow” refers to a batch of flax before it is spun into rope or fabric. In essence, Stubb is trying to ask his new captain to stop his pacing, which is keeping the crew awake below decks. The stuff about the adding some flax to his ivory leg in order to quell the noise is his way of making light of his request. Ahab, however, doesn’t see the humor:

“Am I a cannon-ball, Stubb,” said Ahab, “that thou wouldst wad me that fashion? But go thy ways; I had forgot. Below to thy nightly grave; where such as ye sleep between shrouds, to use ye to the filling one at last.—Down, dog, and kennel!”

Leaders can be tricky customers with which to deal, and the brilliant, crazed Ahab is trickier than most. First, he turns Stubb’s joke on its head, with the allusion to the cannon-ball wadding. Ahab is, after all, a cannon ball of a man with a will of iron and a deadly, combustible nature. “Don’t dare try to quell my thunder,” he is saying to Stubb.

But the next sentence is a crucial one. He simply says, “I had forgot.”

With this, he is admitting his fault, however briefly. In his restless thoughts about how to track down the white whale, Ahab has simply lost track of what time of night it is. We hardly hear his mea culpa because he directly follows it with a couple of whopper insults. First, he compares Stubb to dead man (or a soon-to-be corpse), telling him to go down to his grave and sleep between the shrouds. Then he follows up with the “down, dog” aspersion. Stubb doesn’t take kindly to the insult and speaks up for himself: “I will not tamely be called a dog, sir.”

Ahab only doubles down on the insults: “Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!” Stubb  is no coward, but he retreats before the gale of the infuriated Ahab, barely believing in what has occurred.

So, what lessons can we draw this from scene? First, of course, there’s the standard, “Leaders who are corrupted by their own power can be toxic bullies.” But that’s too pat. Yes, angry and arrogant leaders exist. I think most of us have, at some point, worked for ill-tempered bosses, the kind of people you don’t speak to unless they are in a good mood.

But employees often adjust to these slightly unhinged leaders, figuring out how to negotiate the landmines of their psyches. Stubb still needs to learn how and when to deal with Ahab, and it’s now clear that smart-aleck remarks will not go over well.

It’s more interesting to try to get inside the head of Ahab here. Thinking of him as insane or monomaniacal is also far too easy, an analysis worthy only of lazy high school students.  Ahab is a complicated guy. From his point of view, Stubb is being insubordinate with his mild jape. What’s more, he’s doing it at a time when Ahab clearly has a lot on his mind. At moments like these, leaders are more self-centered than usual. They are often under serious stress and, rightly or not, expect others to accommodate that fact.

A preoccupied, sleep-deprived, maimed and manic Ahab responds in an almost instinctively Alpha-male way to a perceived challenge to his authority. He knows Stubb has a legitimate grievance and expects his tiny mea culpa (which no doubt feels like a large one to him) to suffice. Then, engrossed as he is with morbid matters of mortality, he allows himself to insult Stubb along those lines. He has recently been “entombed” below decks, so part of his insult is directed at himself.

Ahab is crazed, alright, and shows horrendous leadership throughout the scene. Nonetheless, the Stubb/Ahab interplay is an exaggerated version of leader/subordinate conflicts that occur every day in corporate life. They are most likely to happen with leaders who, like Ahab, lack the self-awareness and confidence to keep cool even in the face of perceived challenges or criticisms. These days, some research is discovering (or maybe rediscovering) the value of self-awareness to successful leaders. But even as the data on that comes in, it’s nice to know that we can derive the same insight from one of the world’s literary masterpieces.

Melvillian Management Lesson: Empathy tends to be a key attribute of a good leader. In this scene, Ahab utterly lacks it. He is self-absorbed and unaware of how he’s affecting others. This makes him act in disproportionate ways to the most meager of challenges to his authority. As a leader, if you find yourself frequently snapping at others or belittling them, then it’s time to pull back and try to look at the bigger picture. How would you perceive yourself if you were looking at things objectively? Are you being fair? Do you bear, even in small ways, some semblance to Captain Ahab?

Featured image: A Post Medieval cast iron cannon ball, photographed by Jen Jackson, Kent County Council,  2008-12-11

Breaking Bread with the Leader

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

Most of us have broken bread with a leader at some point. It’s tricky unless you have absolute trust in the leader.  You need to parse your words carefully without seeming to, even while trying hard to use the correct fork without spilling hard-to-pronounce soups on your silk tie (yeah, I have experience in this area).

It’s an old story and ripe for satire. In Chapter 34 of Moby-Dick, we see the situation amped up to an absurd degree:

Like the Coronation banquet at Frankfort, where the German Emperor profoundly dines with the seven Imperial Electors, so these cabin meals were somehow solemn meals, eaten in awful silence; and yet at table old Ahab forbade not conversation; only he himself was dumb. What a relief it was to choking Stubb, when a rat made a sudden racket in the hold below. And poor little Flask, he was the youngest son….For Flask to have presumed to help himself, this must have seemed to him tantamount to larceny in the first degree. Had he helped himself at that table, doubtless, never more would he have been able to hold his head up in this honest world; nevertheless, strange to say, Ahab never forbade him.

Okay, there’s a naval overlay to this that makes it unique, but it nonetheless represents another entertaining parody of leadership rituals. And it is set against the more democratic meals of the harpooners:

In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers. While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report to it. They dined like lords; they filled their bellies like Indian ships all day loading with spices.

This difference isn’t just about ethnicity or job titles; it’s about a lack of hierarchy. Corporate hierarchies have their uses. They lend structure and enhance clarity. They make it relatively easy to make decisions, since stalemates are (in theory) shuffled up the next level in the hierarchy where a yea or nay decision can be made. And they may even give us a sense of security in knowing who is really in control.

But dinner-time dysfunctions are a reflection of what is worst about hierarchies. The pecking order constrains and, by its very nature, changes the way people interact with one another. It stymies innovation. After all, how many stories do you hear about a group of people sitting around a meal with a leader and coming up with some really neat new business idea? No, these stories nearly always start with a group of friends and equals sitting around a table — one typically laden with beers — and dreaming up some world-changing idea bound to become entrepreneurial lore.

Melvillian Management Lesson: The dinner table is a litmus test for leaders. Are the diners who are subordinates relaxed around you? Do they dare speak their minds? And, if they do, is there an ominous intake of breath among the other diners? Perhaps most importantly, will things come back to haunt someone who says something impolitic?

The more a leader can create a free-flowing (though not anarchic) atmosphere in which everyone can speak their mind (without getting personal), the better the leader will tend to be. And the less that a leader retaliates against people who are expressing unpopular but potentially legitimate opinions, the more likely they will be seen as having integrity and being worthy of trust.

Featured image: Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, 14th century. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

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