Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Homer: On Leadership
I’m afraid my Agamemnon was not the best of leaders. On the one hand, he lacked self-confidence; on the other, he was far too sure of himself. He knew that he had taken up more responsibility than he could handle, but he refused to admit that to himself. He thought that the best way to hide his insecurities was to swagger and strut and bark out commands.
Too many leaders in your age have gone the way of Agamemnon. You want power without accountability, status without the duties that go with it. You think you can hide behind your office while treating people as though they were counters in a game.
A true leader suffers alongside his people. He feels their pain and sorrow. My Priam was too old to fight, but he watched the battle from the ramparts of Troy and grieved with his men. He did not insulate himself from the consequences of his decisions, but looked them squarely in the face.
Priam did not deceive himself into thinking he was selfless and above reproach. He knew the war was being fought, in part, to shield his spoiled son from the deadly results of his selfish actions. He accepted his personal responsibility in this and did not project it on to others. He acted as a king should act even as his heart was breaking.
I puzzled long and hard on why I saw so little of this among the leaders of your age. And then the solution struck me. You have thrown off your kings, yet there are many among you who want the power of a king. You have eliminated all hereditary titles, yet your leaders often demand the kind of loyalty that goes hand in hand with the very titles you have rejected.
In short you covet the prerogatives of the king, while neglecting the honor, virtue, and gentility that must ever accompany them. My noble Hector knew what it meant to be the Prince of Troy. He knew the pressures and obligations that weighed him down, and he accepted them willingly as his glory and his burden.
When his beloved Andromache pleaded with him to stay safe within the walls of Troy, he gently refused her plea. He was not prince for his own amusement; the power he held was held in trust for others. He knew this because he had learned it, because it had been instilled in him from his childhood.
True leadership is not something you do, but someone you are. Hector’s decision to leave his home and return to the battlefield was a difficult one, and yet, being the leader he was, he could finally do nothing else. My Hector did not merely possess courage; he was courage. He could follow his heart because his heart had been trained to put his city first: before his desires, before his family, before his own life. He sacrificed himself without thinking of it as a sacrifice, for his decision sprang from the core of his being, from his sense of identity as prince and general, husband and father.
The men of your age put on leadership as if it were a suit of clothes. It is, in fact, a type of character: or at least it should be. The cloak of leadership that Agamemnon slung over his shoulders was too big for him to wear. It strangled him and made him lash out in pride and anger at the best of the Achaeans. It made him greedy for gain, desperate to take every honor for himself.
He saw his folly in the end, but, by then, he had wounded his soldier so deeply that only dire consequences could follow. He could not see Achilles’ strengths, for he could not see his own. His leadership did not permeate his being and reach down to his heart. It hung on the surface, shapeless and unsure of itself.
Not everyone is a leader, nor should everyone be a leader. We are not all the same, nor were we meant to be the same. Leadership is more than a skill; it is a calling. Often we are born into that calling, as was Hector and his father before him. Sometimes we are called upon to take it up, as were Achilles and Odysseus, who did not at first desire to go to Troy. The worst are those like Agamemnon, who take leadership upon themselves without seeking to understand what leadership means.
The first two command respect; they have no need to brag or to prove themselves. The third demands it, even if those demands divide his men and provoke them to bitterness and rage. The first two see leadership as a duty, perhaps one that they did not ask for but which has fallen to them nonetheless. The third sees leadership as his right, and therefore resents anyone who challenges his authority in any way.
The good leader sleeps well at night, for he has equipped his men and is at peace with himself. The bad leader tosses and turns from evening until dawn, for he neither trusts his men nor has trust in himself.
A good leader knows and respects the hearts of his men. He draws out from them the virtues and the skills that are already there and helps them to flourish. The stronger and more confident his men, the stronger and more confident he feels himself.
The bad leader looks upon those beneath him with envy and scorn, intimated by the very virtues and skills that he calls upon them to use. He does not foster joy in his camp but breeds suspicion and fear. His hand is raised against every man, even those whom he claims to be on his side.
Whether you lead an army, a kingdom, a farm, or a smithy, take heed for those who toil beneath you. Someday you may be called upon to give an account of your treatment of them. Be prepared and be afraid.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Hector Admonishes Paris for His Softness and Exhorts Him to Go to War,” by J. H. W. Tischbein (1751–1828), courtesy of Wikipedia.