Skip to main content


The Berserk Manager

May 2024
6min read

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.

In The Soul of a New Machine , a fascinating account of a small team of computer engineers who designed an advanced new computer for the Data General Corporation in the late 1970s, Tracy Kidder describes a “rite of initiation” that the members of the team called “signing up“: “By signing up for the project you agreed to do whatever was necessary for success. You agreed to forsake, if necessary, family, hobbies, and friends.…When you signed up you in effect declared, 1 want to do this job and I’ll give it my heart and soul.’ ” One member of the team commented later, “It was like recruiting for a suicide mission. You’re gonna die, but you’re gonna die in glory.”

The ritual of “signing up” inspires one of the most dazzling chapters in Moby Dick . The speech that Ahab makes to inflame his crew with the force of his own hatred isn’t quite what we hear on an average day at the office, but it’s what we might hear from a charismatic executive whose company is facing a crisis:

“And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now?…Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me.…Let me touch the axis.…Commend the murderous chalices!…Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow —Death to Moby Dick!”

Through the ritual of signing up, Tracy Kidder tells us, management gains one huge advantage: “Labor was no longer coerced. Labor volunteered.” Or as Ahab puts it: “I do not order ye; ye will it.” The will of the leader becomes the will of the group: “They were one man, not thirty…all the individualities of the crew…all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.”

Ahab relies upon more than stirring words to motivate his crew. Before he summons his men to “drink and swear,” he nails upon the mast a prize that will go to the first man who sees Moby Dick —a Spanish doubloon “of purest, virgin gold, raked somewhere out of the heart of gorgeous hills.…”

Fortune’s annual
list of the toughest bosses describes them as abusive, ruthless, withering, moody, autocratic bullies. Ahab makes most of them look like pussycats.

“In times of strong emotion,” Ahab reflects later, “mankind disdain all base considerations.” But emotion cools, and base considerations remain: “I will not strip these men, thought Ahab, of all hopes of cash.…They may scorn cash now; but let some months go by, and no perspective promise of it to them, and then this same quiescent cash all at once mutinying in them, this same cash would soon cashier Ahab.”

Ahab respects the power of money as a motivator, but not the men ruled by that motive. Money is a “base consideration,” and men motivated by money seem to Ahab no better than machines: “My one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve.” For the average man—the “manufactured” man—Ahab feels contempt: “The permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man, thought Ahab, is sordidness.” By the end of the voyage, their commander’s low opinion of them has made the men into the automatons that they may not have been at the start: “Like machines, they dumbly moved about the deck, ever conscious that the old man’s despot eye was on them.”

As the commander, Ahab ought to care more about money than any of his men, but a different motive drives him. Anyone who works in an organization dominated by the ego of a bullying chief executive, or anyone who has seen money wasted because senior managers care less about the interests of shareholders than they care about the satisfaction of their own purposes, will understand the frustration of Ahab’s first mate, Starbuck, after Ahab announces his mission: “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee…Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market.”

Later, when oil spills from leaky casks, Ahab will not pause to plug the leaks, though Starbuck reminds him that they will “waste in one day more oil than we may make good in a year.” When Starbuck musters the courage to ask the vital business question—“What will the owners say?”—Ahab thunders in reply: “Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience. But look ye, the only real owner of anything is its commander.…”

For all his charisma, Ahab is a bad manager—a manager who wrecks the enterprise entrusted to him. Nothing as “base” as money interests him. In the history of American business, the leader most like Ahab is Henry Ford, who brought his company to the brink of ruin through a passion that disregarded profit —a passion for the Model T, which he was pleased to offer to the public in “any color, so long as it’s black.”

Our modern world of smoothly efficient corporations run by executives who worship reason may seem far removed from the world of Moby Dick . But if your boss nails the twentieth-century equivalent of a doubloon over your desk, or if his eye glows with a “fixed and fearless, forward dedication,” you might think twice before you sign up for the voyage. At least check your life insurance. Of all the men on Ahab’s ship, only Ishmael survived.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.