Three Modern Leadership Lessons from Greek Mythology

The Trojan War provides great leadership lessons for the Greeks that are still relevant today. This one comes from before the Greek Army conquered the City of Troy. Achilles had just given up his life in the war. His suit of armor was to be awarded to the most valued living soldier in the Greek army.

Odysseus and Ajax both made claims for the Achilles Prize. King Agamemnon wanted to give it to Odysseus, but he didn’t want to bear the burden of Ajax’s anger at the result. Instead, the king assigned the responsibility for choosing the winner to a group of Tribal Leaders. The two men were invited to compete for the prize.

All were certain that Odysseus would be the winner. The competition was set to favor his great gift. It was a competition of words and intellect rather than action and strength.

Lesson One: Rewards Can Damage Your Team

The Tribal Leaders did as Agamemnon predicted and declared Odysseus the winner of the Achilles Prize. Ajax protested and demanded that they reconsider their decision. When the decision was re-confirmed, Ajax went into a rage. He slaughtered a flock of the tribe’s sheep, seeing them in his madness as stand-ins for the king and Odysseus. Ultimately he took his own life by falling on his sword and left behind his wife and young child.

If the reward will do more damage than good, don’t use it.

Lesson Two: Build Your Team Based on Real Values

The irony in the story is that the Achilles Prize is wholly symbolic. As a suit of armor, it is far too large for Odysseus and far too small for Ajax. Its symbolic value was far greater than its actual value.

When defining organizational or individual values, the same lesson holds true. Build your team based on their true core values – not on symbolic values that carry little meaning and therefore have no benefit for the tribe.

Lesson Three: Make Your Own Tough Decisions

Agamemnon had already chosen the winner of the Achilles Prize. However, he was fearsome of Ajax’s reaction and so he created the contest and set the Tribal Leaders up to act in his stead. Ajax’s extreme negative reaction was not prevented by creating a pretense of a  rational decision-making process.

Nothing is made better when leaders create false processes with the appearance of autonomy that favor a predetermined outcome. That’s not leading, it’s hiding behind your role. Don’t risk losing your credibility and the credibility of your Tribal Leaders by hiding out.

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