The types of goals we set, and the manner in which we pursue them, have consequences for us and for the people around us.
“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…”
– Captain Ahab, in Moby Dick by Herman Melville
And like that, a captain lost his life, a ship, and all men aboard save one left to tell the tale.
Call him Ishmael.
Focus, intensity, and drive are all fantastic things. Identifying a goal and driving toward it can differentiate a professional in the earliest stages of their career. Such drive and focus is valuable for teams, organizations, and yes, families.
But it is in how we define our goals that we establish our course and set sail.
Sometimes…sometimes we choose goals that–when played out–are destructive to us and to those around us. They are outwardly worthy, and inwardly virulent.
The more senior we are, the more influence we have, the more damage we can do.
Ahab did this when he let a blinding, to-the-marrow hatred of a monstrous white whale cause him to lead his men to the edge of the earth and ultimately to death. He took his ship off its profitable whaling mission to pursue an obsession, a blood vendetta against a big mammal that took his leg.
Of course, you or I would never do that, right? Ahab is fiction.
Well, not really.
The way we define our goals–or help execute the goals others define for us–defines us; and the more driven we are in achieving misguided goals, the more destructive we can be. We might not kill our crew, but we could very well kill an organization, a partnership, or a marriage.
Take a moment and think: Do you harbor a goal like Ahab’s lust for killing the white whale?
Worse yet, have you, as a board member, senior executive, or manager, provided people with incentives to pursue a white whale goal?
A white whale goal is one of two things: In its first and simplest guise it’s an obsession. It is a goal that is so deeply held and so exclusively pursued that its pursuit alone is destructive to relationships, damaging to professionalism, and ultimately distracting from real performance. A foolish, simpleminded pursuit of money, power, position, prestige, image, “winning,” or–wait for it–the moral or intellectual high ground are all examples.
Yes, that last one is a doozy that we too often forget or forgive. Self-righteousness blows up as many relationships as most any other thing listed.
In its second guise, a white whale goal can be a misguided goal propagated by proxy, where boards and senior leaders provide a framework of thinking (for example “grow profits”) without guidance on and transparency in boundaries, value, or values; or with specious accounting and accountability.
This second version of the white whale can lead both to brutal decisions by middle managers “just doing their jobs” and to baffling decisions in the ranks where people struggle for clarity. All the while the board and senior managers maintain the real innocence of propagating “good” goals. Or, at least, they maintain plausible deniability.
The epitome of these two types of white whales playing out–an obsession that leads to a vicious goal by proxy–is the assassination of St. Thomas Beckett of Canterbury.
King Henry II, obsessed with the church as an interference, is reported to have said “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
After which, of course, somebody did; to the ignorance of the historical significance of the act.
But, the King didn’t order the martyrdom of a future saint…Did he?
You as a senior executive didn’t really order the curtailing of investment in pursuit of current earnings…Did you?
You didn’t handicap the sales team by introducing turgid administrative tasks in the name of greater openness and transparency…Did you?
You didn’t order leaders to take unacceptable safety and fire risk by curtailing costly planned outages and maintenance…Did you?
Surely, there are honest-to-goodness unintended consequences; and then there are white whales. Sometimes they are hard to tell apart. Foolish or obsessive pursuit and propagation is the sin qua non of the white whale.
Consider the Enron scandal. The tragedy of Enron was equal parts a criminal lack of professionalism (which has been well publicized and rises to the level of obsession for some people involved) and a broad based propagation of and adherence to financial frameworks and incentives that many people in the ranks knew made no sense–misguided goals.
This second part gets missed and dismissed, especially as the Enron case recedes into memory as a quaint blip preceding the global financial crisis of 2007-’08.
The second aspect–the misguided goal set–is actually the most important aspect of the Enron case for professionals to consider these days.
A good example of the incentive issue was where “mark to market” thinking led leaders to be paid handsomely on the modeled Net Present Value of development projects, but not on the actual fulfillment of the projects themselves. Baffling? Yes. Still, senior management–operating within a framework endorsed by auditors, consultants, and board members–defined the goals. Those goals played a big part in destroying the company.
Sure, a few Enron employees went to jail and many professionals were sullied forever; but the true “crime” that gets missed is how top down incentives drove otherwise professional people toward behaviors that they wouldn’t have even paid themselves for. They were white whale goals acted on by proxy.
That is perhaps the best test of a white whale by proxy. Would you pay yourself to fulfill the incentive set you have?
White whale goals by proxy are usually present when you hear people lament that they are “just doing their job,” or “doing what they are told,” or “doing what they get paid to do,” or in the worst of the worst cases “protecting the company.”
Massive autocracies and ignominious genocides stand on the shoulders of white whale goals by proxy, particularly when they are proxy to an obsessed leader. Let’s not participate in or propagate them.
What do some simpler ones look like?
To keep this closer to home, here are a few modern goals that can become white whales in our professional lives, and a brief explanation of why:
1. A superlative image and “personal brand” – The phony focus on image in the mold of “fake it ’til you make it.” If pursued as an end in itself, vs. an outcome of a life of substance, then…well, it’s a deleterious focus on a goal that is ultimately not merely self interested, but selfish in a harmful sense.
2. Great pains for small wins – The dominance of the clean desk, starched shirts, pursuit of dominance on every point in the negotiation. Basically, this is idealizing stuff that doesn’t matter. In WWII U.S. Army slang, foolish adherence to critical standards on things that didn’t matter to the mission was known as chickenshit. I’m not sure what it is called now, but whatever it is it’s damaging to the mission and morale.
3. Rent-seeking – Seeking wealth without the creation of wealth. Placing defense of title, position, and income ahead of principle and value. Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy puts in pithy words this white whale; and provides an explanation for countless managers’ sometimes oddball behaviors: They defend the bureaucracy at the expense of the mission. It’s a classic white whale. Similarly, acting purely on incentives without regard to the value they create (or destroy) can be a white whale goal as outlined in the Enron case. This is often the case when incentives are based on individual drivers (like revenue growth or headcount or output) in isolation that systemically create no value.
4. Temporal goal misalignment – Addressing the “now” without a focus on the “later” or vice versa. How often do we see short term decisions made that have a readily measurable, net negative long term impact; but that are characterized and lauded as magnificent wins. So, you closed the deal and got paid. Was it a good deal for shareholders and employees–the people who live with the longer term decisions? Interestingly, the opposite is the case as well: Many bankrupt companies lie foundered on the rocks of “long term investment.” How often do we see 5-year plans that lack a 1 or 2-year plan component? The white whale lies in the lack of explicit balance.
5. Vengeance – I’m just going to go ahead and list it because, well, I started with Captain Ahab; and this was his issue. Pursuing personal vendettas, particularly those that drag your organization, family, or friends along with you; is the ultimate in white whale thinking. 9 times out of 10, the bitter pursuit of revenge against other people or other organizations only serves to take your eye off the ball. To be clear, this doesn’t mean simply the pursuit of crushing vengeance a la Ahab. It can also be as simple as an overweening need for one-upmanship or the constant need to be seen as ahead of the object of your bitterness. All this is wasted motion when it comes to life and performance.
Knowing whether you are pursuing a white whale is tough. Generally, the white whale looks like a worthy goal to the person obsessed with it.People who are genuinely obsessed can’t generally be reasoned with. But, they can be removed from their position…and, that’s worth pondering.
The best way to spot a white whale is to lay out the “True North” that everyone agrees to–what winning really looks like from a fiduciary, professional, and values standpoint; and then to identify how far off that azimuth your immediate goals are.
White whales pop out easily at that point as twisted and torqued visions of winning. They link to True North via paragraphs of logical backflips instead of a sentence fragment of concise clarity.
Like any other blind spot, these goals require reflection on your own part to spot. They also require willingness to tolerate a person or two in your midst who will challenge your view, your goals, your passions, and your obsessions. That person might be a trusted friend, a mentor, a pastor, or–if you are lucky–a spouse. In a really functional team, it can also be a subordinate or a peer.
In any event, you have to listen to them.
The gist of Melville’s story about Ahab and his hatred of the whale was that Ahab destroyed everything and everyone around him in pursuit of a definitively odd goal: Revenge against the single whale that took his leg.
There were many other whales in the ocean.
But, the white whale did him and his crew in. No–strike that–Ahab’s obsession with a white whale goal did it.
Don’t let a white whale–yours or somebody else’s–do you in.
What are some examples of white whales from your own professional, political, or personal lives?