Span of Control: The Leadership Secret of Captain Ahab

Captain Ahab is famous in modern fiction for his maniacal pursuit of the Great White Whale, Moby-Dick.  He gets a lot of bad press for his poor leadership style, and things didn’t end up going very well for most of the crew by the end of the book.

But there is one thing that the good Captain did right – organizing his crew.  We’ll talk about the way he set things up, an idea called “span of control,” and how you can apply the same approach to lead your teams effectively, even if you don’t happen to be Captain of a whaler.

Span of Control - The Leadership Secret of Captain Ahab

Six Men in a Boat

Call me Ishmael!  No, actually, don’t.   To be honest, I’ve never actually read Moby Dick.  It never came up in English class somehow.  And like War and Peace, in my head it has a bad reputation for being long and hard to get through, so I never picked it up on my own.

But an alert reader* recently pointed out to me that despite all the negative press, Captain Ahab got a couple things right.  One was getting organized aboard ship.

A whaling ship putting to sea at the time of Moby Dick had anywhere from 16 to 36 crewmen, depending on the size of the boat.  The Captain is in charge.  While at sea, the ship has to operate continuously all day and all night.  That includes, navigating, raising and adjusting sails, feeding everyone, keeping all the gear “ship shape” (I had to do that).  Oh, and looking for whales.  And when whales are sighted, the crew jumps into a bunch of whale boats with their harpoons and goes after them.  There’s a lot of stuff going on for one person to handle.

Captains are no dummies; they rise to that position for a reason.  Like his real-life contemporaries, Captain Ahab knew that if he tried to lead his whole crew personally, he would quickly exhaust himself – even before they found the whales.  Old Moby would be sure to get away.
So Ahab gets organized.  Aboard ship, are three Mates – First Mate, Second Mate, and Third Mate.  These guys rank just below the Captain.  The crew is divided into three watches with one of the Mates in charge of each watch.  While sailing, one of the watches is always on deck and running the ship with the Mate of that watch running the show.

Whaling and span of controlWith this arrangement, now Ahab can focus on just telling the three Mates what he wants done (plus the cook and the carpenter).  He sets the broad vision and goals of the ship (get Moby Dick), and then checks up on the Mates from time to time to make sure everything is in order.

When they sight a whale, the Mates jump into the long boats with their crews to chase it down.  Aboard each boat, the Mate has someone with the necessary skills to get the job done – harpooner, boat steerer, oarsmen.  Each Mate and the members of his watch are self-sufficient and train to maintain their skills.  The Captain and a few hands remain behind on board ship

Span of Control

Using this organizational approach, Captain Ahab’s span of control drops from “everybody” to about five or six.  Span of Control is how many people the leader has to directly, personally lead.  As you get organized, keep an eye on this.

Some claim that the idea of Span of Control was first established by General Sir Ian Hamilton, who commanded the British forces at Gallipoli in World War I.  In his opinion:

The average human brain finds its effective scope in handling three to six other brains. - General Sir Ian Hamilton Click To Tweet

In traditional modern thought on the topic, five to six people is still considered the best starting point when establishing a span of control within an organization.  The higher you go above this number, the more difficult it becomes to personally supervise and direct effectively.  There are too many other brains to think about.  You can be overwhelmed.

Captain Ahab only had about six people he had to directly supervise, and when the crews jumped into their whale boats, each Mate had six also.  It made life a lot easier for them as leaders.

So when you are organizing your team of teams, as we talked about in The 6-Ts of Planning, if you shoot for team size of around six people, you’ll be doing yourself a big favor.

Think You Can Handle More?

Can someone effectively supervise more than that?  Of course; teachers do it every day in the class room.  But their task is less complicated than running a whale ship (not to say easy!), the environment is very controlled.

In fact, a study on Incident Command (Leading Emergency Response Teams at things like major fires and accidents) found that there are at least five factors that impact your leadership effectiveness.  Any one of the following will lower your span of control:

  • Team member experience – the less experienced they are, the more effort required to guide them
  • Complexity of the task – the more complex the job, the more leadership effort required to keep it on track
  • Coordination Requirements – the more that is required, the more the leadership effort to synchronize all the moving parts
  • Risk – the higher the risk, the greater the leadership effort to avoid failure or loss
  • Leader Taskings – the more other tasks the leader is doing, the lower his span (think: flying a helicopter while trying to lead everyone else…)

So as factors like these rise, the size of your team should fall.  And watch that last one carefully; the more tasks you have to do personally, the harder it will be to stay focused on leading well.

Span of Control – The Takeway

If you organize your people into teams, you can reduce your span of control significantly, and focus your efforts on leading the team leaders.

Use four to six people as your starting point.  Realize that as complexity and uncertainty increases, your effective span of control decreases.  Things only get harder over time, so it’s better to start with a smaller number in the beginning to keep it simple.

Captain Ahab was smart about establishing good Span of Control, which made his life much simpler.  And that allowed him to spend more mental energy on other, more important things, like fixating on getting the Great White Whale!

Lead on!


* Alert Reader = my Dad

For interesting graphics and deeper, more technical discussion on span of control, visit

For a great and true (and much shorter) story of a battle between ship and whale, which the whale actually won, check out  In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – this is the marine disaster that inspired Moby Dick!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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