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Your Own Private Whale: Leadership Lessons From Moby Dick

Obsession strikes many entrepreneurs--not just the captains of whaling ships. How to walk the fine line between determined and nutty.
MOBY DICK, Gregory Peck, 1956
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Captain Ahab, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, wasn’t the only one with a singular obsession that hounded his thoughts and kept him up at night. Entrepreneurs often have their own white whales, causing them to pace their offices thinking of only that one thing.

Your concern may lack the drama of whale hunting, but whether you’re worried about keeping up with the competition, building your business, implementing a new idea, or making sure your vision is realized, you must avoid falling into the Ahab syndrome. There is a thin line between dedication and unhealthy obsession.

Whatever your goal, don’t let it turn you into an Ahab. His obsession lost him his ship, most of his crew, and ultimately his life. And the whale got away.

Here’s how you can avoid the Ahab syndrome:

1.     Don’t be obsessed by vision. I’ve always argued that visions don’t make great leaders. Great historical leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, FDR, and Mandela all had strong visions, but what set them apart was their ability to make adjustments, fine-tune their tactics, and adjust their direction. They weren’t fixated on their vision to the point of inaction. They were negotiating, creating coalitions, and moving forward.

 2.     Avoid the cult of personality. Personality isn’t your most reliable leadership tool. Ahab was able to establish a strong psychological bond between himself and his crew. They believed in him. The problem was that they so believed in him, and were so energized by him, that they never really questioned his ideas and became yes-men. Enamored with his personality, they were incapable of seeing his weakness.

 3.     Beware of groupthink. Organizations want to have a culture that embodies their values and mirrors their norms. They want likeminded people working together to produce efficiently. But if you have too many people on the same page, you’ll have too many with the same ideas. Outliers and people who see things differently can help you get a better perspective on your goals and ideas.

 4.     Listen to your team. Captain Ahab was deaf to his crew. He didn’t hear what they wanted. He only promised them gold if they found his white whale. It was incentive enough, but as the journey grew perilous, Captain Ahab wasn’t able to heed the warnings from his crew. He stayed focused on his goal and met his maker.

 5.     Take note of the failures of others.  Ahab was fully aware of the harm that Moby Dick could cause. Two sister whaling ships had fatal encounters with the whale, but this did not stop Ahab from carrying on with his dangerous quest. Ahab could not view his goal and weigh the risks with clarity. He wanted to harpoon Moby Dick, but never considered that the whale would drag him down. Not learning from the experience of others is a common trap of the Ahab syndrome.

6.      Remember there’s always another white whale. There will always be another opportunity, another goal or target to shoot for, and always something to work toward. In the final analysis there is always another whale, so don’t waste all your resources and deplete your political and pyschological capital on an obsessive dream or goal.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Nov 20, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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