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Moby-Dick - LeadershipMoby-Dick - Leadership


Moby-Dick (1851)

Written by the American, Herman Melville (1819-91), pictured right.

Melville dedicated the book to his friend and neighbour, Nathaniel Hawthorne, pictured right below, author of The Scarlet Letter.


Set in...

The 1830’s or 1840’s, aboard the whaling ship, the Pequod.Moby-Dick - Leadership

Its captain, Ahab, is obsessed with killing the great white whale, Moby-Dick.


Fun facts

  • Gregory Peck played Ahab, in the 1956 film.
  • Starbucks, the coffee chain, was named after Ahab’s deputy, Starbuck.
  • Moby-Dick was a favourite book of Steve Jobs, Apple's legendary boss (pictured right below) 


 Moby-Dick - Leadership

Key characters

Ahab, the Pequod’s captain.

Ishmael, book’s narrator and senior crew member.

Moby-Dick, great white whale.

Starbuck, Ahab’s deputy.

Queequeg, Starbuck’s skilled harpooner and Ishmael’s best friend.


The story

Ishmael befriends a Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg in Nantucket, Massachusetts. They decide to work on a whaling ship, the Pequod.Moby-Dick - Leadership

Its egotistic captain is Ahab who lost a leg, battling with the legendary great white whale, Moby-Dick. He announces to the crew his ruthless determination to pursue and kill it.

His deputy is a kind Quaker, Starbuck, and his other harpooners are:

  • Tashtego (Native American).
  • Daggoo (African).
  • Fedallah (Persian).
  • Fedallah's harpooning crew (secretly added to the crew by Ahab).

Starbuck’s deputies are:

  • Stubb  (good humoured).
  • Flask (confrontational).

The Pequod meets another ship, the Samuel Enderby. Its English captain, Boomer, lost an arm hunting Moby-Dick and can’t understand Ahab’s vengeful determination to kill it.

Queequeg falls ill and asks the ship’s carpenter to make him a coffin which he keeps.

Two more ships appear, both of which have unsuccessfully tried to kill Moby-Dick.Moby-Dick - Leadership

Ahab is kind to Pip, the African American cabin boy, who goes mad after being left behind in the ocean.

Starbuck considers killing Ahab to stop his obsession with the whale, which has led to neglect of their cargo (oil barrels start to leak). But his pacifist Quaker beliefs stop him.

Ahab refuses to help to look for the missing son of the captain of another ship, the Rachel.

Finally, Moby-Dick is sighted and battle commences. Fedallah and then Ahab are caught in the harpoon rope and both killed.

The ship sinks and the only survivor is Ishmael, saved by Queequeg’s coffin and rescued by the Rachel whose captain is still looking for his son.


Lessons from Ahab’s leadership

 Moby-Dick - Leadership

1. Objectives must be challenging and clear – but achievable

Ahab  has clear objectives (to kill Moby-Dick).

But his paranoid obsession blinds him to his inevitable failure.

Starbuck (Leo Genn, pictured right, in the film) is even forced to consider killing him to stop his madness.


2. Motivation is a mustMoby-Dick - Leadership

Ahab (pictured right with his crew in the film):

  • communicates his objective to kill Moby-Dick clearly to his men at the start of the voyage.
  • persuades everyone (except Starbuck) to do it.

To motivate them, he has to rely on:

  • fear.
  • the force of his personality.
  • the reward of a Spanish gold coin for Moby-Dick’s killer.

 Moby-Dick - Leadership

3. Look, listen and learn

Ahab (Gregory Peck, pictured right, in the film) refuses to listen to the advice of Captain Boomer and Starbuck about Moby-Dick’s murderous invincibility.


4. Be honest with yourself

Ahab’s tremendous over-confidence gives him an unrealistic view of his ability.


5. Vengeance is a vice

Physically and psychologically scarred by his previous battle with Moby-Dick, Ahab’s devilish lust for revenge is disastrous.


6. Adapt your leadership style to the situation

Ahab’s autocratic style is justified, because vital to killing a whale are:

  • obedience to orders.
  • speed of action.

Co-operation between crew members is also essential, and he manages to achieve this through creating a good team spirit.

For example, he introduces the ritual of everyone drinking from the same flagon.

 Moby-Dick - Leadership

7. Be tough but kind

Ahab (pictured right) is

  • a tough (but fair) disciplinarian.
  • sometimes a kind man.

He cares for Pip and is particularly appreciative of his harpooners whose skills are so vital to killing Moby-Dick.

He calls them “most honourable gentlemen and noble men” and drinks with them.


8. Pick the right people


  • needs the best possible crew.
  • smuggles on board his own harpooners (led by Fedallah).


Key quote on fear

Ignorance is the parent of fear, Ishmael


Key quotes on religion

Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs and even from these clear doubts she gathers her most vital hope, Ishmael

I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because the other person don’t believe it also, Ishmael


Key quotes on learning and wisdom

A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,. Ishmael

There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness, Ishmael



Other key quotes

Call me Ishmael, the book’s famous opening line.


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com


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