“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 that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Call me Ishmael. Or maybe not. But it’s my favorite opening session in literature and the book, Moby Dick or The Whale, lifts up the ills of both a problematic mission and bad management.

Herman Melville had a vision—or perhaps more than one—that manifested through his writing. Melville was an experienced whaler and, during his time at sea, heard tales of a ship’s encounter with a white sperm whale and subsequently read accounts of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex after having been rammed and sunk by a sperm whale far off the coast of South America.

Critics and historians speculate that in writing Moby Dick, Melville put forth his visions of good and evil, of the environment, of death, of the politics of the day, of inequity, of God. Whatever the vision ultimately was, or if he wrote to lift up or achieve all of them, Melville had choices to make. He could have painted images of heaven and hell; he could have composed a symphony to reflect his sense of inequity or of death. He could have gone into politics to make policy change. Instead, he chose to write about his vision using the story of a whaling voyage. Melville drew from his experience on the sea, from news of the day and historical accounts, from other great writers, and chose to illustrate his vision of great struggle with words: a single-minded captain in vengeful pursuit of a natural behemoth that sank his previous ship, took his leg, and, at the end of Moby Dick, ultimately took his life. Melville wrote the story to illustrate his vision: writing was his mission, it’s how he got to the vision.

So what does Moby Dick have to do with organizational vision and mission? There are a few things:

  1. Although Melville was successful[1] in bringing his vision to life through the story of a man fixated on killing a whale, and did it in a way that others could see themselves (their own visions) in the telling of the story, Ahab’s vision of a world without Moby Dick was much less successful. Which goes to show that vision alone is not enough to be successful, and that the values underlying the etiology and implementation of getting to one’s vision may play a role in whether the vision comes to fruition;
  2. If you are going to be successful in getting to your goal—the vision—you have to be clear about how you are going to get there. Melville drew from multiple sources and a new world of symbols and language emerged. Ahab was very clear about how to pursue his revenge-based vision through authoritarianism, unilateral focus and isolation, and we know how that ended up.

Melville had a vision and a means. Ahab had a vision and a means. Why did one succeed and one fail?

Because he wrote the book and writers are by nature fairly solitary in their work, Melville had ultimate control over his vision and his mission. He created his plot, characters and language. However, he did not operate in a vacuum, and his belief system included ideas that went beyond himself. He used the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Homer, among many others. He used his life experience and his relationships to add something to the world, the idea that pride and hubris can be precursors for downfall, that as much as people believe they can control their environments the natural world has a mind of its own, ideas that include and also go beyond the individual. In Hawthorne and His Mosses, Melville wrote: Genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round. He seemed to value a world that recognized the ‘other’, the crew of the Pequod was international and worked together. Melville is exploring and considering a larger world, the people who live in that world and their interactions with it, the environment, etc.

Ahab valued a world free of Moby Dick. That was his vision. He had a relationship with the whale that superseded everything else on earth. The whale had maimed him and he was driven by anger and revenge. His way of getting to his vision was, as captain of a whaling ship, to use the ship and the crew to kill the whale. Those on the ship had signed up for general whaling, not to kill one specific whale. They were not part of the system of decision-making; if they were, perhaps they would not have signed on. Or maybe they would have and the outcome might have been different. Or they could have mutinied, but they did not. Other than drawing pay and taking orders, they had little relationship with Ahab.

Toward the end of the book, after the great whale was found, Ahab threw his special harpoon, the line caught Ahab around the neck, pulled him overboard and he was drowned. In the “Hollywoodized” version starring Gregory Peck, Ahab threw the harpoon, went overboard and came up lashed to the whale, arm ‘beckoning for the Pequod to follow him’ to the bottom of the sea. As a child watching the film, I was both frightened by the image and immensely relieved that the whale had won.

The whale was seen by Ahab as a creature who had wronged him. Ahab had a motive unbeknownst to others—with the exception of the ‘secret crew’ who were brought to kill the whale—and used the boat, the crew, technical knowledge, supplies etc., to his own end. In the story Ahab believed, due to anger, hate or superiority, himself to be above the crew, above nature and, essentially, above God. It is this belief that gives meaning to his life and impels his actions. He is starting from a bad place and things only get worse from there.

Ahab’s character is an example of how social structures, anger, hidden agendas, exclusion and individualism, when coupled with an unspoken vision, can sink a ship. And although Ahab’s anger, his desire for revenge, does not reflect the motives of not-for-profit organizations, it does reflect a system of decision-making that stems from a unilateral world view, lack of transparency and refusal to listen, which ends in the death of everyone on the ship but one person, adrift on Queequaig’s coffin, who lives to tell the tale.

This may seem like an overly-dramatic way to illustrate the story of the problems with the origin and implementation of vision and mission. However, if we allow ourselves to consider the ideas that vision and mission come from a belief system, and that every person has a belief system—I’m not talking about religion here, all of us have some beliefs about how the world does or should function and our role within that structure and those functions—then everyone may have a different idea of how they see getting to the vision. How they do the work. How they treat the crew. Given most nonprofits are focused on developing a better world, I’m hoping nonprofit beliefs tilt towards that of inclusive, holistic Melville, rather than single-minded, autocratic Ahab. There surely is enough ugliness in the world, and it’s only right that people know beforehand if there’s a good chance they will go down with the ship.

[1] Moby Dick was not successful in its day; its sales were lackluster and it was not positively reviewed; it was only later that the book was seen as a masterpiece of English literature.