Leaders Hanging on Like Grim Death in Moby-Dick

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

Those who haven’t read Moby-Dick for a while often forget how uproariously funny the book can be. That’s partly because, like Shakespeare, Melville can turn on a dime, making you guffaw one minute and pulling you into dark drama the next.

In Chapter 53, “The Gam,”  Ishmael goes for the wry humor, satirizing the details associated with “the gam” — that is, the meeting between two captains of whaleships.  The idea is that one captain must make the trip over to the other captain’s ship in order to have a conversation (“the gam” in question). The tricky part is that whaleboats of the era didn’t have any extra “seats” because they hosted a full crew of rowers and no tiller at all. So the captain was forced stand up in the boat as it carried him to the other ship.  Being cargo was no easy task, as Ishmael relates:

[O]ften you will notice that being conscious of the eyes of the whole visible world resting on him from the sides of the two ships, this standing captain is all alive to the importance of sustaining his dignity by maintaining his legs. Nor is this any very easy matter; for in his rear is the immense projecting steering oar hitting him now and then in the small of his back, the after-oar reciprocating by rapping his knees in front…[I]t would never do…for this straddling captain to be seen steadying himself the slightest particle by catching hold of anything with his hands; indeed, as token of his entire, buoyant self-command, he generally carries his hands in his trowsers’ pockets… Nevertheless there have occurred instances, well authenticated ones too, where the captain has been known for an uncommonly critical moment or two, in a sudden squall say — to seize hold of the nearest oarsman’s hair, and hold on there like grim death.

You’ve got to love this image of a leader jealously guarding his dignity even if it means tugging the tresses of some poor schmuck just trying to do his job.

Have things changed so much? Oh sure, there is (one likes to think) less literal hair pulling now, but maintaining dignity remains a high priority for your average leader, even at risk of metaphorically mangling an employee or two. I hear tell of an exec who, when speaking to the organization or even in front of groups of clients, would make fun of one of his high-level direct reports. The stories were often of how bumbling the other was, making that person look like the clown of the company. In this case, the exec wasn’t exactly trying to protect his own dignity (I imagine he thought it was good-natured ribbing), but he seemed to be trying to make himself look clever, both by his talent as a raconteur and by pitting himself in stark contrast with the purported clown. It was (reportedly) pretty awful. Even as that direct report chuckled along with the joke like a bullied kid in high school, others would just wince. A hair pull might have been preferable.

Sometimes the hair-pulling is more of a bus-throwing. When the infamous bridge closure scandal rocked the world of Governor Chris Chistie, the New York Daily News editorialized with this headline: “Gov. Chris Christie’s load of bull: Fired aide Bridget Kelly merely a patsy in attempt to shelter Port Authority cronies, himself”. If true, that goes well beyond the innocent if arrogant hair-pull. On the other hand, it would also be a classic case of a leader looking for somebody to take the heat off him, allowing him to stand again with dignity during a major squall. The News put it bluntly:

Christie needed blood to express his outrage to the public, so he drew it from deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly for the sin, the governor said, of lying to him. Perhaps Kelly did lie, although it seems incredible that anyone would flat-out attempt to deceive an intense, emergency inquiry.

Christie is hardly the first or last leader to throw a direct report under the bus. Consider how many former employees one of our recent presidents tossed under a wide array wheels.

Sometimes, of course, the hair-pull is far more innocuous. How many of us have seen the example of a leader who, making some technology-related or other mistake during a presentation (or otherwise showing some area of ignorance), growls at some poor underling/handler who has been tasked with keeping him or her out of trouble? The inference is always that someone, anyone, is to blame for the hitch, certainly not the leader his or her self.

Then there’s the leader who goes out of his or her way to avoid any hair-pulling, preferring to stumble publicly than to grab at the nearest available head. Those leaders deserve a lot of credit, though I wonder how often they get it. Do they look weak as a result of allowing themselves to stumble? Do we, in fact, expect our leaders to be able to get away with a little hair-pulling now and then? Perhaps it’s all part of the leadership aura.

At any rate, Ishmael casts no particular blame in Moby-Dick. His is an amusing observation, not a sense of outrage. He indicates that like everyone else (and probably more so), leaders play their comic roles on life’s grand stage.

Melvillian Leaders Lesson of the Day:¬†As a leader, try to avoid the hair pull. It does, in fact, make you look nearly as absurd as the stumble it is intended avoid. If you do wind up metaphorically pulling hair, be sure to apologize after the fact. If you’ve pulled hair literally, well, get a good attorney.

Featured image by Samuel Calvert (1828-1913) after sketch by William McMinn