in Language & Culture

In literature we can find the greatest of heroes and vilest of villains—some that serve as cautionary tales and some as motivation—but rare is the character that provides both inspiration and forewarning. One such persona can be found in the figure of Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick.

White Whale

Captain Ahab is a man of unshakable purpose and absolute blindness to the possibility of failure—similar to many of modern time’s most successful entrepreneurs. Before setting out on his riskiest venture, the capture of the white whale, Moby Dick, he’s already proven himself to be among the most able whale boat captains in Nantucket. But on his previous voyage, his nemesis severed his leg. Similarly, very few famous leaders jump into their own business without first achieving positive results in another—and often after suffering the odd failure, too. Also like most great leaders and entrepreneurs, Ahab is well ahead of his time. Though early 19th-century America was a mess of intolerance and racism, he hired all races, religions, and creeds to form his multicultural crew. It’s here with this unconventional team that Ahab’s leadership is most apparent; at first his single-minded drive unnerves the sailors, but soon they find themselves swept up in his mission, propelled forward by the Captain’s insatiable ambition.

But Captain Ahab’s past successes and continued obsession with the white whale for whom the book is named, though inspirational, does not come without a price. Towards the end of the novel, he reminisces about his younger days: a harsh, lonesome life, 40 years spent on dangerous whaling ships, working his way up the organizational ladder. Only after he’s past 50 does he finally marry, but he gets back on a boat as soon as he’s wed, leaving his wife a “whaling widow” to bear him a child he’ll never see. In much the same way, triumph in the field of entrepreneurship requires serious sacrifice. Sadly, that sacrifice is often one’s relationships. In a 2012 book titled For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families, writer Meg Cadoux Hirshberg shares that entrepreneurs have the highest divorce rates compared to any other category. The four reasons most often cited for the split of entrepreneur couples are neglect, financial strain, lack of communication, and divergent goals. Undoubtedly, Captain Ahab’s marriage suffered these same problems.

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Captain Ahab’s quest doesn’t end happily. His obsession devolves into madness, an insanity that bubbles just below the surface of his character. He ultimately comes to believe that Moby Dick is the cause of all the problems of his life and all the woes of the world. Other entrepreneurs sometimes go down the same path, imagining that their projects are more monumental and their products of greater importance than they are in reality. There is a fine line between great leaders and mad men, and in Moby Dick we get the chance to see both.


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