Homer’s Leadership Lessons

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When did leadership become a topic of scientific and public interest? Contemporary and more systematic study of leaders and the leadership process is deeply rooted in psychology and started during the earlier part of 1900s. However, it is possible and necessary to turn to classics for invaluable lessons on leading. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey provide detailed biographies of great leaders, Plutarch’s Lives provides insights into actions and behaviors of great leaders, Shakespeare in Othello discusses the role of intuition and in King Lear depicts different types of leaders and the role of succession. So could modern leaders learn from famous literary works?

Let’s consider an example of Homer’s Odyssey written nearly 28 centuries ago – the story of one man’s adventures after the Trojan War. The main hero of the story is Odysseus, who embarks with several ships and many followers to return to his homeland of Ithaca.

7 Leadership Lessons from Homer

1. Creative problem-solving.

In the beginning of his journey home, Odysseus and the crew visited the land of Cyclopes, who were described as having no stable laws. It was Odysseus’s curiosity to find out how such system could operate, which brought him and his men to the cave of Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant who imprisoned them. Odysseus’s leadership was put to the test, when giant ate couple of his men for dinner. After careful analysis of the situation, Odysseus developed a plan and succeeded: he got the monster drunk and poked his eye out. The clever way in which Odysseus led his men to freedom shows a positive aspect of his leadership potential.

2. Respect your enemy.

After successful escape from the land of Cyclopes, Odysseus could not refrain from celebrating his victory over the blind, miserable monster. Despite the wise words and warnings to keep quiet and continue the journey, Odysseus made fun of blinded Cyclops and uncovered his real name, which was kept in secret before. Polyphemus prayed to his father Poseidon, the god of earth and sea, to make life difficult for Odysseus. Thus, the standard trip home turned into a 10 year old survival battle for Odysseus. Good leader should remember that even a defeated foe might have some hidden resources, which will be used in deciding future issues.

Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, remained loyal to him, although she is pursued by many suitors from all over the Greek world. Goddess Athena rewarded her loyalty and decided to bring the beloved husband home.

3. Find a mentor.

Odysseus’s son Telemachus outfitted a ship and went looking for his father, accompanied by Athena, who assumed an appearance of Mentor (!), a friend of Odysseus. Along the way, Mentor provided Telemachus with encouragement that allowed him to develop into articulate, courageous adult who impressed others with his leadership potential. A good mentor will help an aspiring leader to gain confidence, discover an inner strength, and develop important leadership qualities.

4. Establish a vision and let others know.

Having a vision is absolutely essential to leadership, as it provides a focus and sets the agenda for the organization. More importantly, well-communicated vision creates confidence in followers, as it offers a meaning of what, how and why they individually and organization as whole want to achieve. In Odyssey, Mentor established a clear vision – find Odysseus – and communicated it clearly to Telemachus, thus establishing his confidence that the task could be successfully completed.

5. Know yourself.

Successful leaders know their own worth and trust themselves without letting their ego to take over and disturb the process of leading others. This requires recognition of your own strengths and weaknesses, utilization of the skills you have and development of talents and areas identified as lacking. In Odyssey, Mentor (who in fact was an immortal Athena, Zeus’s daughter) had a strong sense of self. However, she utilized this knowledge not in arrogant way, but rather engaged Telemachus with her confidence and vision, which encouraged him to develop his own leadership capabilities.

While Telemachus was searching for his father, Odysseus continued to sail the seas and incur various challenges on the way home.

6. Good leadership qualities.

After an unlucky encounter with his old nemesis, Poseidon, who destroyed Odysseus’s raft by starting an incredible storm, Homer’s hero found himself in the land of Phaeacians, Here Odysseus demonstrates essential leadership qualities, such as humility, since upon his arrival he was mistaken to be immortal, but, without revealing his identity, he convinced his hosts that he was just an ordinary guy who wants to get home. Odysseus demonstrates integrity and magnanimity, when invited to participate in athletic games and haven won, he behaves as gracious winner. His dedication to return home despite being invited to stay in the peaceful land concludes the short list of essential leadership qualities.

7. Act as leader, not a manager.

At some point in his journey, Odysseus and his men visit the land of lotus-eaters. As the name suggests, inhabitants of this country consume lotus flowers, which induce a feeling of well-being in anyone who ate them. Some of the Odysseus’s men have tasted the exotic food and lost sight of the objective of returning to Ithaca and only desired to stay happily in the peaceful land. Odysseus decides to cope with this insubordination by ordering to drag these men back to the ships and keep under tight control until the effects dissipate. This action can be seen as managerial response: very efficient, but was it the right thing to do? A true leader would probably try to broaden the vision or incorporate new goals or learn from new experiences.

There is more to ancient literary works than simple interpretation of stories in the light of modern management and leadership needs. A careful study and reflection upon tales can become an intensely personal psychological journey toward self-awareness and self-development. Doing this could also help to develop own leadership potential for people who are ready to accept myths as metaphors for the truth. Thinking metaphorically can help us see things in a new light.

So, what do you take away from Homer’s Odyssey?

This is a post written by Darja Miscenko. She very much welcomes your thoughts on the subject. You can share them below!


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