The Underhanded Leader

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

To get what he wanted, Captain Ahab knew how to manipulate his employers. It’s one of the oldest ploys in the leadership book: act in a stealthy manner to keep the execs off your back so you can more freely reign over your own crew (who, no doubt, are picking up their own cues from you). The underhanded leader is all too common in fiction…and in life.

In Chapter 50, “Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah,” Melville tells us about how Ahab had been stowing away a private crew of whale killers, tough-guy mercenaries who could man his own personal whale boat so he could stick the barb to Moby-Dick. This bout of hands-on micromanagement from a one-legged man was simply not foreseen by his employers. Melville tells it thus:

[I]s it wise for any maimed man to enter a whale-boat in the hunt? As a general thing, the joint-owners of the Pequod must have plainly thought not. Ahab well knew that although his friends at home would think little of his entering a boat in certain comparatively harmless vicissitudes of the chase, for the sake of being near the scene of action and giving his orders in person, yet for Captain Ahab to have a boat actually apportioned to him as a regular headsman in the hunt — above all for Ahab to be supplied with five extra men, as that same boat’s crew, he well knew that such generous conceits never entered the heads of the owners of the Pequod. Therefore he had not solicited a boat’s crew from them, nor had he in any way hinted his desires on that head. Nevertheless he had taken private measures of his own touching all that matter.

Once safely out of the owners’ scrutiny and reach, Ahab was going  rogue, hijacking their business plans for his own private purposes.

Underhanded? Sure. Mad? No doubt.

But also nicely contrived, Captain! Good job with the prior planning, the holding of cards close to your vest, the crafty coordination of personnel.

Such are the games that leaders may play. It’s often for their own selfish ends, as they use company funds to pad their own accounts, or fly their lovers around, or take their rich and influential friends on all-expenses-paid vacations. But sometimes leaders playing such dangerous games have less selfish goals.

Maybe they’re intent on trying out some radical idea that they know their own bosses would nix but which they believe will serve the company in the long haul. Maybe they want to sell to a neglected market. Or pour R&D funds into a risky innovation. Or try out a new management technique that goes against the grain of the corporate culture.

It’s always a risk. Such leaders could well be hung out to dry if and when they’re found out. But maybe, if their secret gambit pays off, they’ll eventually be honored as a “risk taker,” a “maverick,” a cocky type whistling Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” all the way to the bank.

Melvillian Leadership Lesson: Such underhandedness is usually a rotten idea. If a leader believes so much in a certain idea, then she or he shouldn’t go behind the boss’s back to pursue it. Instead, if they can’t convince their supervisors that something is a worth a risk, they should take off and do it on their own. That’s what entrepreneurship is for.

In the Cap’s case, of course, his deceit was sheer expediency. He didn’t give a rat’s buttocks about being fair to his employers. Nor did he care about deceiving his own crew. He decided to use the tried-and-not-so-true method of mushroom management: keeping his workers in the dark and feeding them… well, you know. In his own eyes, though, the means would justify the ends. This too is a leadership lesson. When leaders start thinking, “Yes, this is a lousy thing to do, but I’ve got to do it to get to my goal,” they should think twice, maybe even thrice.

Featured image from I. W. Taber - Moby Dick - edition: Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, Wikipedia