The Berserk Manager

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Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick has inspired dozens of books and thousands of articles and essays, but not one of them, so far as I know, has examined the novel as a case study in managerial failure—a portrait of an unsatisfactory chief executive officer.

To think about Moby Dick as a business novel may seem strange, but anyone who has worked in a modern corporation is likely to have encountered graduates of the Captain Ahab school of management. And anyone who has worked for a corporate Ahab, or watched from afar as some half-crazed senior executive rushed toward ruin, will find much to ponder in Melville’s masterpiece.

Even before Ahab limps onto the scene, Melville introduces a business perspective through his narrator, an ordinary sailor named Ishmael, who cheerfully acknowledges the role of monetary factors in his life: “I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it.”

No, Ishmael explains, he always goes to sea as a sailor, “because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that 1 ever heard of.”

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” the late singer Sophie Tucker said years ago: “Believe me, honey, rich is better.” In the same spirit, though with subtler philosophy, Ishmael explains why he makes his voyage as a sailor who is paid rather than as a passenger who pays: “The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid ,—what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills.…Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

Though interested in money, Ishmael is not interested in business leadership. Imagine a bright young graduate of one of our nation’s top-ranked business schools who says to a corporate recruiter, when asked about his or her aspirations: “For my part, 1 abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not.” Others may lust to command, but not Ishmael. He’s simply not executive material: “I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them.”

As he understands the attitudes of an average fellow like Ishmael, so Melville understands the capitalists who employ him. Ishmael’s salary negotiation with Captains Bildad and Peleg, part owners of the whaling ship Pequod , keeps the novel firmly tied to the world of business. The Quaker Bildad, Melville tells us, has “come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.” After he fleeces Ishmael in their discussion of salary, we see the old man overseeing some men as they mend a sail: “Now and then he stooped to pick up a patch, or save an end of the tarred twine, which otherwise might have been wasted.”

But it’s not Bildad who commands the Pequod . Bildad is merely an owner, and as business historians have been telling us for decades, it’s the managers of an enterprise who wield the real power, not the owners. Once the Pequod sails, no one matters but the man in command.

About his captain, Ishmael knows as little as most men and women when they join the crew of a corporation. When Ishmael mentions that he has heard that the commander is a “good whale-hunter,” a stranger ominously named Elijah provides unsettling confirmation: “That’s true.…But you must jump when he gives an order. Step and growl; growl and go—that’s the word with Captain Ahab.”

Every couple of years, Fortune magazine publishes an article about the toughest bosses in America. The executives profiled in the article are described with words like abusive, withering, moody, bullying, merciless, imperious, autocratic, capricious, ruthless , and aloof . Ahab makes most of them look like pussycats.

Ahab—“awful Ahab”—exercises on the Pequod an “irresistible dictatorship.” In the early days of the voyage, he remains “invisibly enshrined within his cabin.” When at last he appears, he presents an image calculated to dishearten any sailor who might be tempted to challenge his authority: “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould.…” Ahab is obsessed, Ishmael soon realizes, with “one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought”—the thought of tracking down the white whale that tore off his leg on an earlier voyage. His challenge as an executive is to make his men share his obsession.