Poor Peleg’s Leadership Blunder

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

I know…that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody—desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off. And once for all, let me tell thee and assure thee, young man, it’s better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one.

–Captain Peleg’s thoughts on Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick

Poor Peleg. He’s the perfect prototype of the venture capitalist – one of the owners of the ill-fated ship Pequod – who literally sinks his money in a catastrophic investment: that is, crazed Captain Ahab’s venture. What I love most about this particular passage is that Peleg is simultaneously both right and infamously wrong.

The “moody good captain” line is golden – in theory. Sure, it’s great to have a leader who knows how to tell and take a joke, especially if the jokes aren’t the snarky, sarcastic types that can waft through a corporate culture like toxic gas. But a leader had better be able to do more than hit a punchline. A captain who regularly sends the ship into the shoals ain’t much of a captain, no matter how lilting his laughter.

On the other hand, a crew can take some moodiness – maybe some surliness – from a captain who really knows her trade and keeps things ship shape, even in the big waves.

But, though right in theory, Peleg was way off in fact. Ahab’s desperate moodiness will not “pass off.” Not by a long shot.

Melvillian Management Lesson: “Thou shalt not delegate a critical enterprise to someone, even to someone you’ve trusted in the past, who has been through a major ordeal if you’re still not sure how they’re going to come out the other end.” Peleg should have waited before sending Ahab out again, especially since there would be no overseeing the voyage of the Pequod once it cast off.

As an investor, Peleg paid for his leadership sin, but he didn’t pay nearly as dearly as Ahab’s crew. That’s always the problem with leadership sins: they cascade downward and outward, rippling through oceans.

Featured image from Petesimon, 10 March 2009, Wikimedia Commons.