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Managerial lessons from the 'Iliad.'

Cantami, o Diva, del Pelide Achille l'ira funesta che infiniti addusse lutti agli Achei...

Throughout the summer the opening verses of the Iliad, in its Italian translation, kept running through my mind and heart. My husband was reading it and I was subjected to some indirect propaganda. Casual comments and praise for the new elegant prose version (translated by a friend of his!) came my way while we were enjoying ourselves in Sorrento. I experienced pleasant memories of my Italian school days as well as feelings of frustration for the inadequacy of my memory to bring back more of the verses I was made to memorize when I was about 12.

September comes and other issues occupy my mind: an overdue conference paper, as well as one or two problems in academic management. As usual when pressure builds up, I feel the need to resort to the sort of bedtime reading that takes me away from both economics of international business and academic management. "Cantami, o Diva,... "the two-and-half verses come back. Yes, perhaps the Iliad is the answer. The world of Homer will transport me 3,000 years away from my daily activities. Besides, it will take me back to my adolescence and I know that bathing in the water of my childhood memories is always a wonderful cleanser of daily worries.

So, here we husband smiles away while I pick up the Penguin Classic. "Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus, the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians... Cantami, o Diva,..."[1]. We loved it or rather we loved them: Hektor and Achilleus. Not both together - the tacit moral code of behaviour among the bunch of little girls in a Roman convent school forbade us to love both of them. We had to choose and take sides. I was for Hektor, my sister (in the same class) was for Achilleus, so we took our conflicts back home with us. Hektor, devoted husband of Andromache and affectionate father of little Astyanax (who can ever forget the description of the little boy scared by the sight of his father wearing a "glinting helmet"?), appealed to my goody goody nature. I still remember the sharp feeling of pain and anger when we read the sections in which my hero is brutally killed and his body vandalized by horrible Achilleus. I was not asked to read all the bloody killings Hektor was responsible for. Had I been asked, I might have changed my mind as to the sweet nature of my hero.

The violence level is, indeed, very high on both sides. The detailed descriptions of spluttered liver and entrails, dark blood, spear after spear going through nipples, eyes, stomachs, throats, are getting me down and I begin to wonder whether I want to continue. After all, the story is well known. There are two sides, the Trojans and the Achaians. Old Priam is the king of the Trojans and one of his sons, handsome Paris, also known as Alexandros, abducts from one of the Achaians kings, Menelaos, his beautiful wife Helen, as well as many possessions. That is enough reason for a war which is led, on the Achaians' side, by Agamemnon, Menelaos' brother, and on the Trojans' side by Hektor, one of the 50 sons of Priam.

But is this really the story of the Iliad? I am beginning to wonder. When I start to think about it my interest revives. For a start the details of war violence and brutality have the effect - no doubt planned by the author - to put the reader off wars and pity the fate of the humans whose destructive actions are orchestrated by reckless gods. And also I should not forget that the Iliad is about a very limited period in the Trojan war.

The epic starts with anger, but not anger over Helen's abduction; rather with the anger of Achilleus against his own leader, Agamemnon. An internal conflict which drags on and on as Achilleus sulks by the Achaians ships and refuses to fight. Then I can see the gods quarrelling among themselves. I can also detect a few problems in the Trojan camp. Yes... I am beginning to see it all in a new light. There are three groups of people interacting with one another and all having internal problems. Yes... it looks like dealing with... well, three different... departments.

"Cantami, o Diva,....; Sing, goddess,... " I see it all as a different story now; and this is what it looks like. There are three departments, all with their own strengths and problems. No doubt somebody could carry out a SWOT analysis. We might have the seeds of an interdisciplinary research project; but let us not carry things too far just now. The three departments are: the Achaians, led by Agamemnon; the Trojans, led by Hektor; and the gods led by the great one himself: Zeus. Or maybe the gods are not really a department but more headquarters; I am not sure... not being an expert in organizational analysis. Perhaps somebody can sort this one out... Another academic interdisciplinary project? Forget it. Let us stick to the idea of three departments for simplicity's sake. It seems obvious to me that all three departments have external problems and, what is more important, they all have internal strategic and managerial problems.

Let us start with the Achaians first. After all it is their internal quarrel that the Iliad begins with; this quarrel is the centrepiece of the epic. Agamemnon starts by treating disgracefully an old man who has come to ransom his daughter from slavery; he is pressurized by his colleagues into retracting, feels annoyed and demands to be given Achilleus' favourite beautiful slave as a recompense. Agamemnon shows, from the very beginning, signs of being a very bad head of department. He distributes the surplus from their business (war business, of course) unfairly and allocates to himself the lion's share; he bullies a respected old man and his young daughter, and then, to make things worse, behaves like the ultimate bully and takes away an agreed prize from Achilleus: the young slave Briseis. Everybody agrees that his conduct is unacceptable. Not only is he a bad manager, but, to make things worse, he is not the best on the technical side of the business either. In fact, the best warrior on the Achaians' side is not Agamemnon but Achilleus. He has thus chosen to offend and humiliate a senior colleague and indeed his best technical expert.

Achilleus is no common member of staff. He is the leader of the Myrmidons; he entered the war to help Agamemnon and Menelaos (and, no doubt, to take back a good amount of war spoils). He has no personal feelings against the Trojans. He is of divine descent on the mother's side; and above all he is a very prickly character. His own loving mother finds him a bit too much here and there in the great epic. His best friend Patroklos at one point bursts. out: "But you, Achilleus, are impossible to deal with" (p. 273). Yes... do not we all feel like that about some of our colleagues now and then? So Achilleus refuses to enter combat in retaliation for Agamemnon's bullying behaviour and spends his time moaning and sulking over his wounded pride, by the Achaian ships. Moved he will not be, either by the slaughtering of the Achaian army or by a high level peace mission bringing soothing words and rich gifts sent to him by Agamemnon. The confrontation and obstinacy of two senior people (one indeed the head himself) bring the department to the edge of ruin. It is only external threats that ultimately force these two difficult men to stop behaving like two immovable rocks. But typically even their change of hearts bears signs of their self-absorbtion and egocentricity. Achilleus enters the battle only because his best friend is killed; the killing of many other Achaians has no effect on him. He still acts under the effect of anger and not reason: his anger is now redirected away from Agamemnon and towards Hektor. Agamemnon's way to make amends is again a very egocentric one. He starts by saying he does not want to be interrupted in his speech: "...when a man is standing to speak, it is proper to listen and not right to interrupt him - this is troublesome for even an experienced speaker" (p. 325). Hum! Shall I quote this at my next lecture? No, maybe it does not apply to women standing to speak. But let us get back to the Iliad. What is more important, as an indicator of Agamemnon's character, is the fact that, in the course of this speech, instead of admitting his mistakes and taking full responsibility for them, Agamemnon blames somebody else: the gods. He says to his silenced congregation: "But I am not to blame, but rather Zeus and Fate... they put a cruel blindness in my mind..." (p. 326). I will try this one next time I make a mistake and see if my colleagues accept it.

The second department is the Trojans, whose leader is Hektor, old king Priam's favourite son. Hektor is the acknowledged leader both as a human resources manager and as a technical expert. He is the best warrior, does not spare himself, he is great at rallying his troops around; he seems to be liked by the men in the camp and the women at home. Now the reader may begin to think that I am giving vent to my adolescent love and that prejudice makes me see perfection in Hektor. Of course, reader, you may be right, but believe it or not I did find some faults even in Hektor. Like many people who are good at their job and in high position, he tends to be rather patronizing towards his colleagues lower down and is also too arrogant to accept advice: he thinks he knows best. He patronizes his younger brothers. He refuses the advice offered by Poulydamas to retreat back to the city walls when Achilleus enters the battle. What is more, he refuses the advice of his old parents; his own father addresses him as " stubborn man..."(p. 361). Obstinacy and arrogance will lead him to his death and to the ruin of his wife and son.

We are now left with the last department: that of the gods. What can we say about this one?; it really is a very incompetently run department if ever there was one. The department is torn apart by internal conflicts and quarrels; the members spend their time meddling in other people's business. There is no overall strategy, sense of direction or purpose; indeed it is difficult to see what their business is about. The boss seems to change his mind for almost no reason at all; the staff spend their time deceiving and tricking one another and indeed the boss himself. The head of department has to resort to his authority over and over again to keep his people under control. In other words, a total mess: the sort of department which badly needs a new, dynamic, well respected leader.

So I have come to the end of the Iliad with the wonderful scenes between Achilleus and Priam over the return of Hektor's body to his father and his people. Has it helped to distract my mind from my academic management activities? Well, up to a point. Have I enjoyed it? Yes, tremendously. Have I learned any lessons from it? Yes, many, including some managerial ones such as:

(1) the resolution of internal conflicts is essential if we want to increase our chances of success in the external ones;

(2) excessive arrogance, greed, egoism in leadership can lead to self-destruction;

(3) some leadership issues can surface almost unchanged at different historical periods.

I shall finish with my apologies to classical scholars and literary critics; I am sure they are horrified by my reading of one the greatest literary works of antiquity.


1. The references and the spelling of the names of characters in the Iliad are from Hammond, M. (1987), The Illiad, a new prose translation, Penguin Books, London.
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Author:Ietto-Gillies, Grazia
Publication:Leadership & Organization Development Journal
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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