Leadership Principles from Captain Ahab

By - Early Jackson On Mar 20, 2015

Leadership Principles from Captain Ahab


After a particularly taxing week I found myself having some trouble sleeping. I was lying there and decided I would go out to the couch to get some work done. Why not be productive since I am obviously suffering from insomnia? I turned on the television for some background noise but had high hopes I wouldn’t be too distracted. I flipped through a few sports channels before landing on a movie. It took a few minutes to decide if I would commit to watching Moby Dick, but boredom won the fight.

I recognized a few familiar faces in the flick and it seemed to have an element of action. So I closed the laptop and kicked back to check out man’s epic battle with himself and nature. Ahab versus the big fish. To be honest, I never read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in high school. I think I peeked at the Cliff Notes, but that’s about it. But who hasn’t heard of it? A whale, an angry ship’s captain and a crew lost at sea. I got the basics, right?

As I watched the movie, I saw interesting qualities in both the captain and each crew member. Young mister Starbuck, Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo and of course, Ishmael. What a bunch. They seemed to bump heads immediately. Not to spoil the plot and ending, but Ahab ends up dead and everyone, with the exception of Ishmael, perishes. The following day I went to the internet to do some follow up research on Melville and his book originally titled The Whale.

Much like Ahab, we all are on some sort of quest these days. To be a better parent. To earn a better living. Some want to climb the corporate ladder. Whatever you are after, it will take both self-leadership and perseverance to accomplish the goal. I began to draw some similarities from Ahab, his crew and their mission that make for good advice as we are in pursuit of whatever is out there for us. Here are a few lessons we can take along for the journey:

  • If revenge is your motive you’re already doomed: This innocuous white whale was responsible for taking one of Captain Ahab’s legs from the knee. He would walk with pain and a limp for the rest of his life. Instead of seeing the blessing of having his life spared from an encounter with a killer, he set his aim at hunting it down and destroying it. His obsession with revenge would eventually cost him his life. How many times have you set sail to prove your naysayers wrong? Or maybe you are determined to get someone back who crossed you at the office. See we aren’t so different from Ahab. We can easily be blinded by the senseless emotion of revenge and put ourselves and others we lead in jeopardy. Revenge is a waste of our energy. Ask anyone who’s tried, it never satisfies in the end.
  • Your ‘crew’ is a reflection of your integrity and philosophies: According to the book, Ahab was prone to put his crewmembers against each other in these strange demonstrations of loyalty. What I have learned from many years as a manager and leader is you cannot manipulate people for your own benefit. People are there to be guided to what is best for them and the organization. Whenever you introduce favoritism or special treatment, you disrupt the energy of the group. Ahab had long lost his morals as he chased Moby Dick; soon after most of his crew followed. Remember, we cannot ask more of those we lead than we are willing to be ourselves.
  • Don’t let your ego become larger than the mission: Why are we here? If you keep this information in front of you and the team, you can make it. But once your eyes drift from what the mission is, you’re heading for disaster. No one is there to make you great. Your team’s objective isn’t to show the other departments how hard you all work. Leadership without clear directives usually ends with team mates who are frustrated. Like Ahab’s officers, they will be laying on the deck exhausted and in danger because their leader has moved from what’s important.
  • It’s ok to have limitations, you’re human: Ahab was part preacher, part prophet and all self-absorbed. Somehow in his Captain’s Manual he read it was wrong to show vulnerability to his team. Wrong! Over the past 10 years studies have proven that a leader who isn’t afraid to show they are vulnerable tends to get more results from a team than a leader who is stuck in a Superman Complex. Your team will respect you so much more when you can admit you are tired, a little concerned or even not sure which direction to take. It lets them know you are all in this together.

At the end of the movie, Ahab was tangled in a line attached to the harpoon he stuck into Moby Dick. Ishmael managed to swim to a coffin from the ship and climb on. After floating for some time, he is rescued by a fellow Nantucket ship and lives to tell the tale. Every other member of the crew died. Ahab’s legacy was clouded by his disregard for everyone else and relentless need for revenge.

Often it isn’t what we do but how we go about it that is the problem. He passed over multiple chances to regain his senses and turn around. He pushed his team through dangers, storms and lack of supplies. All for Moby Dick! And in the end he had nothing but bitterness to show for it. I hope for us we see these tips as signs and turn our teams back to safety. As it was written in book’s epilogue; “The drama is done. Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck.”

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