A Model for Leaders – The Odysseus Archetype Part I

Emotional intelligence has been hailed by many as an important component of a business leader’s skill set these past couple of decades. One of the first, if not the first, character in Western Literature to display and employ emotional intelligence consistently is Odysseus, hero of Homer’s classic Odyssey.

Time and again, he carefully considers how to best approach and communicate with the different people he meets on his journey. This is not unlike many successful leaders today.

Homer has carefully constructed the character of Odysseus as an archetype of the model man. He is courageous and physically capable, much like Achilles, the main character in the Iliad. However, unlike Achilles, Odysseus brings emotional intelligence to every opportunity and issue. He understands the importance of individualized communication. He knows everyone has their own needs and desires and approaches them accordingly.

Most leaders also find they have to navigate difficult circumstances from time to time, ones where there was just no good answer. Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, faced that very situation when coming to Scylla and Charybdis.

He was about to sail through a narrow strait. On one side was a whirlpool, Charybdis, which might sink his entire craft. On the other side lurked a six-headed, blood thirsty monster ready to pounce.

After considering the options, Odysseus made the decision to sail on the side of Scylla, knowing it would mean losing six of his crew, and possibly himself, to a horrible death. He made that hard decision so he wouldn’t take the chance of losing the entire ship.

Odysseus then made another tough choice. He resolved not to tell his crew of the hazards. He knew that knowledge would only make them anxious and unable to perform.

Scylla might not have been the path you would choose. The story allows us to see how one leader dealt with a very difficult decision. Seeing it from afar we can consider how we might have done something different and when our rock and a hard place situation arises.

So why consider this ancient Greek as a model for leaders today? In the paragraphs above we see analogies of situations in which we have found ourselves. Moreover, human nature doesn’t appear to have changed nearly as much as our technology. We remain, at our core, the same as people who lived millennia ago. One can readily discern this when studying the characters Homer and other classical authors construct.

There is value for leaders in the perspective of distance especially when (or because) it is devoid of our emotional involvement. Perspective is hard to come by when we’re in the thick of things. We are better able to judge and learn from the decisions our archetypes made. We see how they approached circumstances, what they thought, the actions taken and the results attained. Then we’re free to modify them to our present needs as we think best.

In the next post we’ll continue to discuss the Odysseus Archetype and show how it is a solid model for leaders of today to consider and use.