In the zest to drive for results, leaders can become dangerously single-minded. Vision can become an obsession--not unlike Captain Ahab's fixation on Moby Dick. The chase of the White Whale cost the captain and the crew their lives (save Ishmael, who lived to tell the tale). Leaders who are similarly possessed by their vision or primary objective can fall victim of the Ahab trap--and not only not achieve their goals, but also experience a great loss in the process. To avoid the fate of Ahab, leaders need to keep the following points in mind:

1. Remember the little things. Great visions do not necessarily make great leaders. Memorable historical leaders, as varied as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela, were driven by their goals, but they were able to make adjustments, fine-tune their tactics, and adjust their direction as the situation demanded. They were able to negotiate, create coalitions, and move their agendas forward. Not only does leadership demand big thinking, but it also requires the mastery of the microskills of leadership.

2. Avoid the cult of personality. Leaders can only get so far on personality. Captain Ahab's disposition allowed him to create a strong psychological bond between himself and his crew. The trouble is that Ahab and the crew were so tight emotionally that the crew was slow to recognize the captain's weaknesses.

3. Listen to others. Captain Ahab was deaf to the experience and expertise of others. At the beginning, he had their commitment, but he quickly squandered it. As the journey grew more perilous, Captain Ahab was unwilling to heed the warnings from his crew. He stayed focused on his goal, pacing the deck unwilling to see challenges and warnings, ensuring his meeting with his maker.

4. Pay attention to the failures of others. Ahab was fully aware that an encounter with Moby Dick could be dangerous. Two sister whaling ships had fatal encounters with the whale, but this did not stop Ahab from carrying out 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.

5. Recognize that there will be other opportunities. It is not a one-shot deal. There will always be another chance, another goal or target, and something else to work for. There will always be another White Whale. Don't waste your time and resources or deplete your political and psychological capital to reach, what may be in the end, an unreachable dream.

After numerous setbacks, one of the crew members cries out to Ahab,

(It's) not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!

Starbuck was trying to talk Ahab down from the leadership trap that consumed him. Ahab was unable to take in Starbuck's advice. Were he able to hear Starbuck, he would have taken the time to assess his goal--and to see the true costs pursuing (and not attaining) his objective. With a cooler head, it is likely Ahab would have had the presence of mind to take measures that potentially save the Pequod and all the lives onboard--but Ahab was blinded by his vision.

Published on: Jan 31, 2017
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